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Keywords:

  • archaeological sediments;
  • soil micromorphology;
  • hearths;
  • FTIR;
  • electron microscopy;
  • diagenesis;
  • phytoliths

Abstract

Throughout human history, caves and rockshelters have been favored habitation places. These unique environments preserve sediments derived from an assortment of geological and human processes that are typically absent or masked at open-air sites. Cave sediments are parts of larger stratigraphic frameworks that can reflect environmental changes, shifting microenvironments, and the nature of human activity within these confined and sheltered spaces. Stone tools and faunal material compose the artifact assemblages from caves that are typically studied. Cave sediments, on the other hand, which encase the archeological finds and which have both geological and human origins, have been understudied relative to traditional artifacts, in spite of their ubiquity and importance. Thus, anthropogenic sediments, the most striking of which are organic-rich deposits, and combustion features merit the same attention as any other artifacts that result from human activities and behaviors.

The purpose of this paper is to highlight some of the most salient aspects of prehistoric cave sediments and the processes revealed by recent studies of these accumulations. We review methods and techniques that are used to analyze cave sediments and illustrate how their careful study can be used to reconstruct local and regional cave environments, as well as the nature of the human activities that produced them. Finally, we show how such study can place important constraints on our archeological interpretations, ultimately having a profound effect on how we decipher human prehistory.