Aurignacian - Reindeer hunters and first modern artefact culture of Europe

Image of the Lion Man.  The Oldest Portable Art: the Aurignacian Ivory Figurines from the Swabian Jura (Southwest Germany).  Harald Floss

The Aurignacians were not the first Europeans.  With the previous post on the Apidima 1 skull fragment from Greece, dated to circa 210,000 years ago, I established that humans with modern Homo sapiens features may well have been wandering in and out of parts of Europe for a very long time. Neither was Apidima 1 the first European. Earlier humans, including Neanderthals had been around Europe for a very long time. Before them, earlier hominins, such as Homo heidelgergensis; and Homo antecessor who left artefacts and footprints on a Norfolk beach, some 800,000 to 900,000 years ago. Recently, stone tools found in Ukraine during the 1970s have been dated to 1.4 millions years of age, and may be associated with an Homo erectus type hominin.

Not the first Europeans, but here in this post I am going to investigate the earliest modern human artefact culture that we currently know to have established itself in Europe, and even in Britain. I'm going to discuss the Aurignacians.

Image.  Animation and Graphic Narration in the Aurignacian. Marc Azéma

Thought to have spread into Europe from SW Asia in the Levant, where the culture is also found, it has been proposed that an earlier origin could be the Zagros Mountains of Western Iran, where similar tools have been recorded.

Aurignacian yDNA haplogroups so far discovered are C1a, C1b, and K2a
Aurignacian mtDNA haplogroups include N, R, and U.

Of these, only the mtDNA hapologroup U is still common in modern Europe.

The genetic history of Ice Age Europe. Nature 2016. Fu, Posth, Hajdijak etal.  (Full download here)

Concluded that a 37,000 year old Aurignacian genome has some continuity into the modern European population, and was more akin to modern Europeans, than was a contemporary sample from China. The division between Western Eurasians, and Eastern Eurasians dates back to include the Aurigacians in the West. A contribution to modern European DNA has been identified albeit a small percentage. The genomes sequenced indicated that they were likely dark-skinned and brown eyed, but with reservation.

Here we present genome-wide data from three individuals dated to between 45,930 and 42,580 years ago from Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria1,2. They are the earliest Late Pleistocene modern humans known to have been recovered in Europe so far, and were found in association with an Initial Upper Palaeolithic artefact assemblage. Unlike two previously studied individuals of similar ages from Romania7 and Siberia8 who did not contribute detectably to later populations, these individuals are more closely related to present-day and ancient populations in East Asia and the Americas than to later west Eurasian populations. This indicates that they belonged to a modern human migration into Europe that was not previously known from the genetic record, and provides evidence that there was at least some continuity between the earliest modern humans in Europe and later people in Eurasia. Moreover, we find that all three individuals had Neanderthal ancestors a few generations back in their family history, confirming that the first European modern humans mixed with Neanderthals and suggesting that such mixing could have been common. 
Recent arrivals into Europe, with connections to present day West Eurasian populations, and they had some recent Neanderthal ancestry mixed into modern.

According to Wikipedia:
The Proto-Aurignacian and the Early Aurignacian stages are dated between about 43,000 and 37,000 years ago. The Aurignacian proper lasted from about 37,000 to 33,000 years ago. A Late Aurignacian phase transitional with the Gravettian dates to about 33,000 to 26,000 years ago.
That is actually a very long time period. One research project proposed a Europe-wide population of only 1,500 at a time. Extended over a long period of many thousands of years.

The early Aurignacian dispersal of modern humans into westernmost Eurasia. PNAS 2020. Haws, Benedetti, Talamo and Zinsious.

Looks at the entry into Iberia, and revises the date.
Image. Antler points and a perforated baton from the Early Aurignacian.  Origin and Development of Aurignacian Osseous Technology in Western Europe: a Review of Current Knowledge  Élise Tartar

Interview with Dr James Dilley on the use of these antler points. He suggests that a lack of good wood with which to construct spear shafts may have led to them employing more breakable split antler points to preserve the valuable shafts. The points could have also improved the bleeding out of quarry. Perforated batons are also common on their sites. Use is unknown.

Flint bladelets as with some later cultures, are often a feature of Aurignacian sites. Typical hunter's lithics utilising flint with great economy.

Continental sites produce volumes of reindeer bone. It seems to have been their target prey.

Their landscapes were increasingly cold, open, and treeless.

Culturally they left high quality cave paintings in South France, and carved ivory pieces in Germany. The first Venus figure. The Lion Man. They often painted and sculptured lions, which may have been important to their belief system.
Image of the Venus of Hohle Fels.  The Oldest Portable Art: the Aurignacian Ivory Figurines from the Swabian Jura (Southwest Germany).  Harald Floss

British Aurignacian

Image. Recorded Aurignacian sites in Britain.  Coastline would have been far further out than in the above image. The North Sea was dry, and Britain connected to the continent.

The Timing of Aurignacian occupation of the British Peninsula.  Edinburgh Research Explorer 2012. Dinnis.R

A study of flint burins to type in comparison with sites in Belgium and France. Occupation of the British peninsular would have been impossible for long periods. The conclusion:

British Aurignacian burins busqués are technologically indistinguishable from those found in Belgium and at Abri Pataud in southern France c. 32 000 14C BP, or c. 37 000 cal BP. Therefore, the Aurignacian can be considered to have appeared in Britain at this same time. The proposed c. 32 000 14C BP appearance of burins busqués accords with the few radiocarbon dates from other sites which directly date Aurignacian occupation of Britain. Morphologically similar lozangic-type osseous points are also present at Abri Pataud and in Britain at this time. This period apparently coincides with or closely follows the most significant warm phase during the lifetime of the Aurignacian: Greenland Interstadial 8. An environmental response to this climatic amelioration is therefore a plausible reason for the extension of Aurignacian ranges northwards at this time.

In spite of an overall paucity of material, the presence of two bladelet production techniques suggests that there were at least two Aurignacian occupations of Britain, or that occupation was sufficiently prolonged to encompass the replacement of one by the other. The precise timing of what is interpreted as the more recent of the two techniques – the Paviland burin method – is currently unknown.
More than one occupation during warmer periods around 32,000 years ago, or / and 37,000 years ago. These coincide with warmer interstadials. Find-sites include Goughs Cave, Kents Cavern, and Goats Hole, Paviland. Britain's classic Aurignacian skeletal remains are those of The Red Lady of Paviland. A male who had died in Britain circa 31,000 years ago.

Image of the Aurignacian flute made from vulture bone.  The Oldest Portable Art: the Aurignacian Ivory Figurines from the Swabian Jura (Southwest Germany).  Harald Floss

Video. Hear the bone flute being played.


Ice Age reindeer hunters on the European tundra with a talent for the arts. They hunted with split antler tipped throwing spears. They had music, and made flutes, using the long leg bones of vultures. They were talented artists, leaving ivory and bone sculptures, and their famous cave paintings.  They were few, and moved around far, following herds and shifts in the bitter weather. Their landscape was open and cold, treeless. Fauna would have included reindeer, tarpan / horses, steppe bison, woolly rhino, mammoth, cave lions, and hyenas. The lion may have been ritually important to their belief systems. They most probably encountered another type of human in Europe - the Neanderthals. Four percent of their own DNA, with long segments, originated among the Neanderthals.  The artefact culture survived for thousands of years, until the approach of the Last Glacial Maximum some 25,000 years ago. They persist in a few percent of modern West Eurasian DNA.

In addition to reindeer hunting, some sites are associated with ancient coastlines, and pierced seashells have been found as personal ornamentation. No evidence of fishing, but they may have foraged for shellfish. Ornamentation also includes the teeth of carnivores such as lions and foxes. Red ochre was applied on some remains.

This investigation has really helped me to imagine them. The Europeans who lived here before Last Glacial Maximum. I was really surprised just how many resources there are available online. I've barely touched on this subject. I have only touched on their cave art

I don't want to violate copyright by sharing Tom Björklund's fantastic art work here, but here is a link to his take on the Aurignacian people. I think that creativity blended with archaeology really helps: