Claire Terhune is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas. For the past four years she has visited Romania to analyze and “tag” fossil specimens from Grănceanu, one of the most significant anthropological sites in Eastern Europe. This year, toward the end of her visit, she and her colleagues stumbled upon an important finding. This is her account of this summer’s experience.
It may not look like it, but the Olteţ Valley in Romania is one of Eastern Europe’s most fossil-rich sites from the early Pleistocene, a geological subepoch that started roughly 2.6 million years ago and ended 781,000 years ago. We know this because during the 1960s, at the height of communism in Eastern Europe, agriculture increased in this area and, as a result, so did deforestation. In combination with the local geology of the area, landslides increased, and sometimes these landslides uncovered fossil deposits.
When this happened in the 1960s, experts from the “Emil Racoviţă” Institute of Speleology in Bucharest were called in, and these fossil sites were investigated and excavated. Grănceanu, a tremendously rich and large deposit that includes thousands of bones of fossil mammals and vertebrates, is one of these sites. Publications about Grănceanu in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s highlighted a diversity of fossil species that date to about 1.8 million years ago. These extinct species included mammoths and saber-toothed cats and the prehistoric ancestors of giraffes, giant deer, horses, rhinos, wolves, bears, hyenas and primates similar to today’s baboons.
Sadly, though the fossils themselves were recovered and stored in the Institute of Speleology in Bucharest, all documentation from the site – excavation notes, geological information and a list of all of the fossils – were thought to have been lost, and not very many scientists were aware of this valuable fossil collection. Over the past four years, our team has been working to re-catalog and analyze the fossils from Grănceanu and other small sites in the Olteţ Valley, so that we can understand the paleo-environments in Europe at this time. Understanding these environments is important, because this is exactly the area through which early humans would have had to travel to reach Western Europe from Africa, via the present-day Middle East.
Though we know human ancestors were present in Spain by 1.4 million years ago, we have no evidence of them in Eastern or Central Europe at this time. How and when did our ancestors disperse into Europe? And what type of animals might they have encountered when they moved into this area? Would the presence of some types of animals have made it less likely for them to be successful in their migration? These are all questions we’re trying to address with our research. And, in the process of answering these questions, we hope to find concrete evidence of the presence of early humans in this area. This could take the form of fossil human remains, stone tools made by humans, or evidence of humans cutting meat off of bones.
This May and June, our joint American and Romanian research team spent 2½ weeks working with the existing Grănceanu collections in Bucharest. We bagged, tagged and preliminarily described as many specimens as we could. We sorted giant grab-bags of fossils and identified specimens to species and part of the skeleton. For teeth, we took detailed measurements and photos, molded the teeth for microwear and sampled the teeth for isotopic analysis. Ultimately we can use these data to help understand that animal’s diet, and therefore the environment it inhabited when alive. For particularly significant specimens, we used a blue LED scanner to create 3-D models. Though the fossils have to stay in Romania, these 3-D scans allow us to make highly accurate models of important fossils for later analysis.
On our last day at the institute, as we packed up the specimens and reorganized them in their new bags and crates, we noticed a cabinet with the label “Oltenia,” which is the region surrounding the Olteţ Valley, on the front. Lo and behold, the cabinet was full of documentation from the Olteţ Valley work that had been conducted in the 1960s! We still need to comb through these papers, but we suspect their contents are promising. Hopefully they will help us sort through the fossils and discover more fossil sites in years to come. Wish us luck in our fossil hunting!
Other researchers involved in this project:
- Sabrina Curran, assistant professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ohio University
- Alexandru Petculescu, senior researcher, Department of Geospeleology and Paleontology, “Emil Racoviţă” Institute of Speleology, Romanian Academy of Sciences
- Chris Robinson, professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Bronx Community College, City University of New York
- Marius Robu, researcher, Department of Karst and Cave Protection, “Emil Racoviţă” Institute of Speleology, Romanian Academy of Sciences
- Jenifer Hubbard, student (recent University of Arkansas anthropology and biology alumnus)