Giuseppe Briatico

PhD Candidate

Hölderlinstr. 12
72074 Tübingen

Ph.D. thesis summary

Thesis title: The palaeoenvironmental context of the Early and Middle Pleistocene at Melka Kunture archaeological site (Upper Awash Valley, Ethiopia), as evidenced by stable isotope analysis

Stable isotope analyses are a well-established and powerful tool to determine valid information on palaeodiet, palaeoenvironment, and palaeoecology (Bibi et al. 2013; Bocherens et al. 1996; Cerling et al. 2015; Lee-Thorp et al. 2010; Levin et al. 2008; Rivals et al. 2018). The method has been widely applied on Pleistocene archaeological sites in eastern Africa at medium and low altitudes (Ascari et al. 2018; Bedaso et al. 2010; Negash et al. 2020; Rivals et al. 2017; Semaw et al. 2020; Uno et al. 2018), but the literature is lacking isotopic reconstructions of ecological condition at high elevation. Here, are reported carbon and oxygen stable isotope composition (13C, 18O) of fossil teeth enamel (carbonates) from Melka Kunture (MK) prehistoric site, located in the Ethiopian highland (~2000 m a.s.l.), in order to provide palaeoenvironmental insights. The measurements of 13C/12C and 18O/16O isotopic ratios were performed on 178 fossil teeth representing a various range of taxa (Hippopotamidae, Bovidae, Equidae, Suidae, Giraffidae, and Crocodylidae) to test the extension of the vegetation types. Collectively, 310 enamel samples (bulk and intra-tooth) have been analyzed. The carbon isotopic results of hippopotamids, bovids, equids, suids, and giraffids indicate a range of foraging strategies across the pure C4 diets to mixed C3-C4 diets, with variations between ~1.95 Ma and ~0.6 Ma (Mega annum) (Early and Middle Pleistocene). In contrast, the bulk and intra-tooth carbon isotopic ratios of crocodiles suggest that these Pleistocene reptiles ate herbivores that consumed C3 plants. The intra-tooth results of hippo, equid, and suid teeth indicate C4 diets and stable water conditions during the lifetime of the sampled mammals. The isotopic data, which emphasize the presence of open space conditions as C4 high-elevation grasslands, are consistent with pollen and phytolith analysis, indicating extended mountain grasslands, with a different abundance of mesophytic grasses, mountain forests, woodlands, and bushlands. However, it should be kept in mind that isotopic results from teeth enamel reflect the feeding strategies and the ecological behaviour of the analyzed taxa, while fossil pollen allows describing the plant types present even at a certain distance from the site, and phytolith data allow characterizing the distribution of the “on the spot” plants at the time of deposit formation. These complementary data encourage a combined approach among distinct methods that can yield more detailed palaeoenvironmental and ecological insights.

Keywords: Melka Kunture, Ethiopian Highland, Pleistocene, stable isotopes, tooth enamel, palaeoenvironment.

Supervisors: Prof. Margherita Mussi, Prof. Hervé Bocherens

Fields of Interest

  • African Prehistory
  • Human Evolution
  • Diets, environments and climate in the past, by stable isotope analyses
  • Interaction among fauna, humans, and environments


2018 - 2022
(Defense scheduled for May 2022)

Sapienza University of Rome (Italy), Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen (Germany)

Thesis: The palaeoenvironmental context of the Early and Middle Pleistocene at Melka Kunture archaeological site (Upper Awash Valley, Ethiopia), as evidenced by stable isotope analysis
Supervisors: Prof. Margherita Mussi, Prof. Hervé Bocherens

2015 - 2018

MA in Archaeology (with distinction) - Sapienza

2011 - 2015 University of Rome BA in Archaeology - Sapienza University of Rome (Italy)


Academic and work experience

March - May 2022

Student assistant (Hiwi contract) Biogeology group - Department of Geoscience, University of Tübingen (Germany)

2015 - 2019

Museum guide at Museo di Casal de’ Pazzi (Pleistocene deposit), Italy



Excavations at Melka Kunture site (Ethiopia). Italo-Spanish archaeological mission at Melka Kunture and Balchit (Italy-Spain)


Excavations at Riparo Blanc site (Italy)


Excavations at Grotta di Pozzo site (Italy)

Scholarships and grants

PhD Scholarship (Sapienza University of Rome)

Three years scholarship (2018-2021) (~40.000 €)

Research Grant (Sapienza University of Rome) Five months scholarship (2021) (~5.000 €)
Research Grant (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst) Four months scholarship (2021) (~5.000 €)
Research Grant (Centre français des études éthiopiennes) One month scholarship (2019) (~700 €)
Research Scholarship (Sapienza University of Rome) Four months scholarship (2019) (~4.000 €)
Master Scholarship (Sapienza University of Rome) Two years scholarship (2015-2018) (~10.000 €)
Bachelor Scholarship (Sapienza University of Rome) Three years scholarship (2012-2015) (~15.000 €)



Conference presentations

“New isotopic evidence (13C, 18O) from Melka Kunture site (Ethiopia): preliminary implications for the dietary patterns, ecology and habitat of Pleistocene mammals” (African Archaeology Research Day 2020, online event, December 11th 2020)

“The palaeoenvironment in the Ethiopian highland at ~1.6 Ma ago: evidence from stable isotope analysis at Garba IVD and Gombore IB (Melka Kunture, Upper Awash, Ethiopia)” (UISPP 2021, online event, September 2nd-7th 2021)

“The Early and Middle Pleistocene environment of Melka Kunture (Upper Awash, Ethiopia) as evidenced by stable isotopes analysis” (BEGEO scientists 2021, Naples, October 7th-10th 2021)

“Paleodiet and environmental reconstruction of the Middle Pleistocene mammals from Casal de’ Pazzi site (OIS 7, ~200 ka) (Rome, Italy) by stable isotope analysis” (StEvE Meeting 2021, online event, November 26th 2021)


The Early and Middle Pleistocene paleoenvironments in the Ethiopian Highland: stable isotope analysis (13C, 18O) of fossil animals from Melka Kunture archaeological site (Upper Awash Valley, Ethiopia)” (IsoEcol 2021 Interlude 11.5 - Applications of Stable Isotope Techniques to Ecological Studies, online event, May 19th-21th 2021)

“Paleoenvironmental insights by stable isotopes and phytoliths at Simbiro III Monumental Section (~1.2-1.3 Ma) (Melka Kunture, Upper Awash, Ethiopia)” (ESHE 2021, online event, September 22nd-24th 2021)


Margherita Mussi, Eduardo Méndez-Quintas, Joaquin Panera, Flavio Altamura, Luca di Bianco, Raymonde Bonnefille, Giuseppe Briatico, Elisa Brunelli, Denis Geraads, Giuseppina Mutri, Flavia Piarulli, Susana Rubio Jara, Giancarlo Ruta, Sol Sánchez-Dehesa Galán, Andrea Serodio Domínguez, Rita T. Melis. Une vue d’ensemble sur Melka Kunture, grand complexe de sites pléistocènes dans la vallée supérieure de l’Awash (Ethiopie). L’Anthropologie.