Human mobility in Paleolithic Portugal

A Neanderthal premolar tooth from the Almonda cave system, Portugal, seen from different angles. Isotopes of strontium were used to track the movement of this individual over the 2 to 3 years the enamel took to form. CREDIT João Zilhão

PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES—A study* reconstructs the mobility patterns of Neanderthals and modern humans during Paleolithic times in present-day Portugal. Strontium isotope analysis of tooth enamel can be used to reconstruct mobility patterns and associated behaviors of early humans. Traditional strontium isotope analysis has been limited by low sampling resolution. Bethan Linscott and colleagues used laser ablation multicollector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry to produce sequential, high-resolution strontium isotope data from the tooth enamel of two Middle Paleolithic Neanderthals and one Upper Paleolithic anatomically modern human from Torres Novas, Portugal. Geological strontium isotope compositions in the study area vary significantly over short distances, allowing the authors to reconstruct fine-scale mobility patterns of individuals. The authors also produced sequential strontium and oxygen isotope data from associated fauna to reconstruct the individuals’ subsistence behaviors. The results suggest that the Neanderthal individuals foraged across a territory of approximately 600 square kilometers. The results for the Upper Paleolithic individual are consistent with limited, seasonal movement along the 20-kilometer-long right bank of the Almonda River valley, representing a subsistence territory of approximately 300 square kilometers. The authors suggest that the decrease in territory size was due to increased population density. According to the authors, the results demonstrate the potential of high-resolution, laser ablation strontium isotope analysis for reconstructing the mobility and subsistence strategies of past human populations.


Neanderthal premolar. João Zilhão


Almonda Spring and entrance to Galeria da Cisterna archaeological site. João Zilhão


Article Source: PNAS news release.

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