distinguishes man from his recent ancestors and is the point when Homo sapiens
began to use complex symbolic thought and express cultural creativity. Being modern in this sense includes fishing, self-ornamentation, figurative art, games, music, cooking and burial.Pinning down this time period is a highly multidisciplinary task that combines input from archaeology, biology, geochronology and chemistry. The ‘Marine amino acid racemisation
investigation of the Mediterranean’ (MAARITIME
) project has identified that point to be some 160 000 years ago — earlier than dates previously set.The researchers analysed the remains of molluscs found around the Mediterranean rim in sites dating back to the mid Pleistocene
. These included the scallop Pecten
, sea snail Patella and the dog cockle, Glycymeris. Used by early hominids as a food source and for jewellery, mollusc remains are a good reflection of modernity.
MAARITIME used an updated version of amino acid racemisation (AAR) dating to analyse the proteins in the shell. They also used newly established geochronological frameworks to improve the dating of the Mediterranean sites, especially those key to the evolution of modern humans, such as the Haua Fteah Cave in Libya. Chronological frameworks developed for sites in Greece, Italy, northern Africa and Spain indicate that reliable age information can be obtained using the scallop Pecten for as far back as 400 000 years.
Overall, MAARITIME has successfully integrated research fields in both northern and southern Europe tracing the evolution of man. As project research involves protein breakdown, the applications are wide-ranging. Amino acid breakdown into a mixture of enantiomers, or mirror image molecules, is a focus for study of ageing, for example.
The team is developing a new approach, based on amino acid and protein signatures, for the species identification of worked shells (used as personal ornaments). These cannot be identified on the basis of morphology alone and the technology has already caught the interest of museum conservators and curators.