Artificial intelligence analysis of animal remains from 1.5 million years ago

An interdisciplinary scientific team has analyzed the remains of animals that lived 1.5 million years ago in a new paleontological site at the Venta Micena level in Orce (Granada, Spain), Venta Micena 4, using artificial intelligence techniques.

The work is part of the research project ProyectORCE, coordinated by Professor Juan M. Jiménez Arenas of the University of Granada (UGR), and has had the participation of two members of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES- CERCA) and the Rovira i Virgili University (URV), among specialists from other institutions.

Jordi Agustí, ICREA researcher at IPHES-CERCA and associate professor at the URV, was the discoverer of the Venta Micena site in 1976, together with the paleontologist Josep Gibert, and is responsible for the area of ​​micromammals at ProyectORCE, while Hugo Blain, a researcher at the IPHES-CERCA, is one with regard to paleoecology.

Thanks to Artificial Intelligence, the team has been able to reconstruct the different episodes of activity at the site, which were not visible to the naked eye. It has been achieved using a method called Deep Machine Learning, which is a way of “teaching” the computer to identify patterns using mathematical algorithms. This technique had only been applied once before in a Spanish site, and never in sites with a chronology comparable to Venta Micena 4. Thanks to it it has been possible to know that the bones and fossil teeth contained in this place were deposited in, at least, two different moments separated in time, what has been called two “paleosurfaces”.

The surroundings of Venta Micena have been known since the 70s of the last century. However, despite being considered one of the richest and most interesting paleontological sites in all of Europe, all research to date had focused only on the area called Cut 3, a den of Pachycrocuta brevirostris where this giant hyena was breeding her cubs and fed on pieces of carcasses scavenged elsewhere.

However, little was known of other areas of Venta Micena, where there may or may not be evidence of human activity. This is how Venta Micena 4 was discovered, a new point where excavations have been carried out since 2005 and from which, for the first time, data are beginning to be published.

According to this new work, Venta Micena 4 would be located near a freshwater pond or pond, where the animals would go to drink and, in the case of carnivores, to feed. For this reason, the site is full of evidence of bones eaten by other animals: bite marks, bones broken by bites, etc. However, many complete remains also appear and even in what experts call “anatomical connection”, as whole parts still attached to each other, such as mammoth ribs or whole rhinoceros legs. And the fact is that the animals that walked through Venta Micena 4 1.5 million years ago were many, and very varied: elephants, bison, deer, horses, hippos, saber-toothed tigers, hyenas or wild dogs, among others.

Reconstruction of the Venta Micena environment 1.5 million years ago. (Illustration: Mauricio Antón)

All this fauna was also present in the other two large Orce sites (Barranco León and Fuente Nueva 3, slightly more modern than Venta Micena 4) accompanying humans, the first representatives of the genus Homo in Europe. These populations, scavengers and gatherers who did not know the use of fire or hunting, had a technology very advanced in their time.

However, to date no evidence of its presence has been found in Venta Micena 4. Why is it in Barranco León and Fuente Nueva 3, and not in the Venta Micena fields? The answer is probably related to the climate and in that Venta Micena is somewhat older Barranco León and Fuente Nueva 3. In Venta Micena, the environment was somewhat more arid and open, less suitable for hominids. However, Venta Micena 4 continues to be a key site to understand the context of this first human settlement in Europe.

In the future, new studies will be able to answer new questions that arise about Venta Micena 4, for example: which specific carnivores were involved in the formation of the site? Did the behavior of the animals in this site change over time? Is it possible that in the famous Cut 3 there are also several scenarios and stories that have not been identified to date? New excavations and investigations must provide data in this regard.

The General Research Project “First human occupations and paleoecological context from the Pliopleistocene deposits of the Guadix-Baza basin. Archaeological zone of the Orce basin (Granada, Spain) ”(BC.03.032 / 17) is financed by the Ministry of Culture of the Junta de Andalucía and coordinated by the University of Granada.

The new study is entitled “Taphonomic and spatial analyzes from the Early Pleistocene site of Venta Micena 4 (Orce, Guadix-Baza Basin, southern Spain)”. And it has been published in the academic journal Scientific Reports.

In the new study, in addition to the entities already mentioned, others have collaborated: the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), the Unit of Excellence “Archaeometrical Studies: Inside the Artefacts & Ecofacts” of the UGR, the TIDOP group of the Polytechnic School Superior de Ávila and the Research Assistance Center (CAI) for Archeometry and Archaeological Analysis of the Complutense University of Madrid, the University of Zaragoza, all of these in Spain, as well as the University of Helsinki in Finland. (Source: URV)

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