Aliakmon Paleolithic/Paleoanthropological Survey Project

Although the European fossil and archaeological records are comparatively well-documented, the dating, routes of dispersal and identity of the earliest archaic European populations have not been resolved. The timing of the first colonization of Europe is still a matter of debate. Until recently, Northern Europe was thought not to have been inhabited before 500 ka, although the European Mediterranean was colonized much earlier. Human remains from Atapuerca, Spain, and Ceprano, Italy, have been dated to approximately 800 ka, indicating a very early occupation of Southern Europe. Lithic artifacts dated to ~ 700 ka from Pakefield, England recently also documented an early human presence also in Northern Europe. The discovery of much earlier human remains dated to 1.6 million years ago in Dmanisi, Georgia, also puts forth the issue of possible earlier ventures into the continent that have not yet been identified.

The route of migration of these populations is also unclear. A Levantine corridor through Asia Minor and Greece is often considered the most likely route of dispersal from Africa into Europe. However, the discoveries of the earliest European human fossils in Spain and Italy have suggested a direct dispersal from North Africa into the Iberian and Italian peninsulae. Such a route is considered less likely due to the problems of crossing substantial bodies of water and navigating the strong currents of the straits of Gibraltar. Finally the taxonomic and phylogenetic positions of these early Europeans are disputed. The human remains from Gran Dolina, Atapuerca, have been attributed to the new species Homo antecessor, proposed as the last common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans. The position of the Ceprano calvaria, originally assigned to H. erectus, is still unresolved. The recent discoveries of H. ergaster with even more archaic affinities in Dmanisi, Georgia, further complicates the issue of the identity of the earliest Europeans and their relationships to later European hominins.

The geographic position of Greece at the crossroads of Europe and the Near East and in the easternmost edge of the European Mediterranean gives it a central role in hypotheses about the early European colonization, as it lies on the hypothesized dispersal corridor from Africa through the Near East into Europe. The region’s fossil human and paleolithic records, therefore, are critical in addressing these questions. Nevertheless, its paleolithic archeology and paleoanthropology remain largely unexplored. With the exception of the poorly dated, possibly Middle Pleistocene Petralona and Apidima crania, the Greek paleoanthropological record remains relatively obscure. The Greek paleolithic record is also poorly represented: while a few Middle Paleolithic sites are known, the number of Late Paleolithic sites is surprisingly small and the Lower Paleolithic is virtually unknown. The undertaking of survey projects and the discovery and dating of additional paleolithic sites and fossil human remains from this region are imperative if our hypotheses about the early colonization of Europe are to be tested.

The Aliakmon survey is a three-year project (2004-2006) aiming to locate new paleolithic sites and paleoanthropological / paleontological deposits along the river terraces of the river Aliakmon, in the Grevena area, North-Central Greece. It is conducted as a collaborative project between the Max Planck Institute and the Ephoreia of Paleoanthropology and Speleology (Southern Greece) under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and directed by Katerina Harvati and Eleni Panagopoulou. The purpose of this research is to add crucial, currently lacking evidence from South-Eastern Europe and particularly from the Southern Balkans that will help shed light on the questions of the timing, route of dispersal and identity of first human colonizers of Europe. The Aliakmon river basin is one of the main passageways from North-East to North-Western Greece; it has previously yielded paleolithic artifacts, including one of the two Lower Paleolithic bifacial stone tools known from the country, and rich Plio-Pleistocene fauna. Our survey in 2004 and 2005 was able to locate several promising paleolithic and paleontological sites.

The Aliakmon team is both international and interdisciplinary. It comprises paleoanthropologists, paleontologists, paleolithic archaeologists, and geologists, and includes several students from both Greek and foreign universities.

The Aliakmon survey is funded by grants to Katerina Harvati from:

The National Geographic Society
The L.S.B. Leakey Foundation
The Institute for Aegean Prehistory
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation

Additional funding provided by:
The Greek Ministry of Culture
New York University
Max Planck Institute
University of Oregon