Swabian Ice Age caves declared World Heritage sites

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has declared six caves of the Ach and Lone Valleys near Ulm World Cultural Heritage sites. The UNESCO committee announced in Krakow, Poland, on July 9, 2017 that the Vogelherd, Bockstein, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Sirgenstein, Geißenklösterle and Hohle Fels caves were inscribed on the World Heritage list as „Caves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura”.

Since its start in 2008 ROCEEH has been part of the research network studying the sites. With Nicholas Conard as scientific head of the ongoing excavations at Hohle Fels (see Newsletter 1/2009), of the re-excavation of the backfill from the 1930s excavation at Vogelherd and of prospections of new sites in the Lone valley; Maria Malina, responsible for technical aspects and documentation of the excavations (see Newsletter 9/2013); and Michael Bolus analyzing lithic finds from Geißenklösterle, several ROCEEH members are exploring the sites. Old and newly discovered material from the sites still yield surprising results and important insights in the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition, the unfolding of cultural characteristics in the early and middle Upper Paleolithic, and the re-settlement of the region after the Last Glacial Maximum. With the old age of their Aurignacian assemblages, the Swabian caves are key sites for studying the earliest migrations of anatomically modern humans into Europe. Findings from the last three years include mtDNA sequencing of a Middle Paleolithic femoral fragment from Hohlenstein-Stadel suggesting that Neanderthal mtDNA diversity was significantly higher than previously presumed and that Neanderthals might have mated with early Homo sapiens earlier than thought before. A sophisticated tool with four holes recently found in Hohle Fels throws light on technical history yet unknown for the early Upper Paleolithic. Each of the holes is lined with deep, and precisely cut spiral incisions. It has been suggested that the tool carved from mammoth ivory was used to make rope. Similar finds had come to light in earlier decades in Geißenklösterle and Hohle Fels. Recently found fragments of a second “Venus” figurine at Hohle Fels and further fragments of bone and ivory flutes show that these artefacts had not been individual developments, but – as tools for communication – formed an integral part of the Aurignacian culture of then new Homo sapiens inhabitants of the valleys. The singular set of lithic and organic technologies of the Swabian Aurignacian represented in the World Heritage sites is currently used by Conard and Bolus to test models of cultural innovation during the early Upper Paleolithic.