Into the Cave

Caves in Romania were always an interest to the local people who lived there and among outsiders who heard of the stories people told. Many of the locals looked at caves as “hide outs and fortifications,” and this led to an increased interest in cave exploration (p. 33). Romanian caves have been mapped since possibly one of the first caves was documented, the Veterani Cave in 1692. People believe that “caves hide treasures buried by haiduci, the local outlaws” (p. 33). Maybe these stories are true or maybe Romanians are great storytellers; either way, who doesn’t love a great cave story or a local legend that leads into some true treasure finds? The treasure that I am talking about is not gold, silver, or even jewels that I would imagine the locals describing; the treasure is instead, a cave full of bones.

The documentation for the Peștera Ponor-Plopa did not start until 2001 and this is located near Anina in Caraș-Severin (p. 5). Inside of this cave is another cave called The Peștera cu Oase. Both caves are located in the Carpathian Mountains in the southwestern part of Romania. Because this mountain range is huge and spans into neighboring countries of Eastern Europe, many speleological clubs developed in the 1970’s in order to understand the cave systems better. They established themselves in order to explore, document, and protect their karst systems. It is great to know that many people are interested in further expanding their knowledge of the caves and cave systems. Many of these caves have lots to offer about our past lives and cultures especially if human remains are found.

The Peștera cu Oase is literally called, “The Cave with Bones” (p. 8). This is a generic name that was used in order to keep this particular site of the cave system safe while it was explored. The main people involved in exploring Peștera cu Oase were Ștefan Milota, and Laurențiu Sarcină; both of these people are principle members of the Pro Acva Grup in Timișoara, which is an explorer’s club. Adrian Bîlgăr is also on the team of explorers. Oana Moldovan was from the Institutul de Speologie who was able to establish a connection to Erik Trinkaus from Saint Louis in order to help with the human mandible. Moldovan became the leader of the Romanian team. She organized the financing, legal matters, and helped to organize the project. Most of the field work was done in three seasons starting from 2003 and ending during 2005, and was followed by furthered documentation and analysis.

The three main people who were involved in this project from the start were Erik Trinkaus from the United States, Silviu constantin from Bucharest, and João Zilhão from Spain. These three helped to organize Life and Death at the Peștera cu Oase: A Setting for Modern Human Emergence in Europe that was written by the different members of the project that I have used as my monograph to obtain this information. There are 33 contributors for this project listed right after the contents page in the beginning of the book. Without each and every one of them, I don’t believe that this project could have taken place.

The archaeologists seemed to have much experience even if they had never worked on an excavation site like this one. Between the main people involved, it seemed that many of them had quite an interest in this project for various reasons and worked hard obtaining detailed and accurate information. In fact, some of them even had to learn how to scuba dive because there was a lot of water that hid the entrance of the cave. Although I did not get an exact history lesson of where the people studied or for how long it took for them to receive their education, all of them had official addresses of where they attended studies or work experience listed into the “contributors” part of the book. All of the different places of studies included Australia, Austria, France, Germany, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In order to support the work of this project, there were many people who thankfully sponsored it. The first was the Institutul de Speologie “Emil Racoviță” in both Cluj-Napoca and Bucharest, Romania. Other sponsors include the Washington University in Saint Louis, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for the Anthropological Research, The Leakey Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. Other contributors to this project included Ricardo Rodrigo and João Zilhão from the Instituto Portugues de Arqueologia, Hélène Rougier from the Institut royal des Sciences naturelles de Belgique, Silviu Constantin from the Romanian National Council for Academic Research, and lastly the National Agency for Scientific Research. All of these people and organizations were listed in the preface of the book. We can see that much of the research and project was worked on by many different people who took interest in this project.

It’s kind of funny for me to note that the project didn’t appear to be one that many people at first found interesting. The American, Erik Trinkaus was emailed by Moldovan asking for advice and he basically told her to document everything she finds but that it wouldn’t be of much importance. Trinkaus did, however, agree to meet the archaeologists and flew to Europe, laying his eyes on the first skull found in the cave. Upon seeing the skull, Trinkaus agreed it appeared to be much older than he had originally anticipated and decided there should be further examination of the origins than his beginning advice. He took a sample and sent it to the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit for AMS dating and the results were 35,200 14C BP (p. 8). This mandible was dated twice, and this date was agreed upon for all those involved. Trinkaus decided he would participate in the project, with the motivation of potentially finding more human remains or artifacts.

What I think helped further to excite people about the site was when Trinkaus “completed the first report on the Oase 1 mandible, published in 2003, in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA” and also later was published in the Journal of Human Evolution (p. 10). This was the first step to raising awareness of the find. What else I believe helped to spread the word was when Constantin, the editor  of the Theoretical and Applied Karstology asked “Moldovan for a rapid communication article on the Oase discoveries” and it was also published (p. 10). I think it is important that when a discovery is made that it is shared with the community in order for the community to first know about it and secondly to support it. How is the project going to be supported if nobody knows about it? All projects of this size and magnitude must be financially assisted as well as spiritually, physically, and mentally embraced; last but not least, the project must be supported by the community! If the community does not support it, then the project may not get done and there will be plenty of information that human civilization will fail to learn about.

There were many things about this site that made it incredibly interesting such as scuba diving to enter into the cave and a ladder was set up in order to climb into the higher parts. There were sinkholes and small passageways that the archaeologists and those on the field had to enter through in order to get there. How the cave was originally found was that Milota, Bîlgăr, and Sarcină noticed “fresh air coming through a small fissure” and “opened a narrow passageway onto a set of galleries that had remained closed, protected, and pristine since the end of the Pleistocene” (p. 7). The opening is near where they found the first skull along with many other bones. These bones were mostly cave bear bones and they were documented.

During the field seasons, the archeological “crew was joined for periods of time by friends and cavers, who camped near the cave opening to watch over the equipment and, for those who caved, help with the work inside” (p. 12). The unexplored cave contents were definitely in need of protecting because anything moved or missing from its original place would have altered the entire project; not to mention replacing supplies is often not inexpensive. Another great concern is that “illegal international trade in bear skulls is rampant in Romania” and this unfortunately sounds like a major problem (p. 9). Romania is a country that has a high bear population, and it is unfortunate that people want only their skulls. I don’t know if bears in Romania are poached, but if they are, many poachers don’t care about the animals sacrificed for their human profit. The cave bones would have been an easy target; therefore, I am proud that these people camped outside of the cave and gave their services. They were trying to stop any looters and protect the site and archaeologists as much as possible. I believe that they did. By doing this, they also become a part of the project’s preservation, and what a great project to be a part of!

Because it was a cave, it was dark and there needed to be light. The archaeologists rented a generator but the cord was not long enough to get enough light to see, and instead they used their headlamps. The light for the photographs was “furnished by special photographic speed lights” (p. 11 – 12). The lighting was a major problem during the entire time of excavating, along with cell phone reception.

It must have been quite a challenge to be working in the dark along with entering and exiting. To get into the cave, it took about an hour, and to leave the cave, it took about 3 hours because of the “added luggage – bones to transport outside, sediments to sieve in the river, rocks and excavation debris to store in out-of-the-way parts of the system” (p. 15). So not only were they working essentially in the dark, but they were removing materials out of the cave for further examination and trying not to damage the items in the process. Special materials and supplies were purchased in order to keep the remains safe during transportation.

This project does appear to be mostly about cave bears; however, the reason this project started was because of the first human skull found lying in situ upon the emergence into the cave. Questions were then asked like: how old is the skull, what was the age of death, and what is it doing in what appears to be a bear’s hibernation den? Will there be more human remains? Other questions started to emerge such as how old is the cave? What happened to the bears that led them to their death? Because cave bears are extinct, it was a perfect site for trying to understand this. More than 5,000 faunal bones were collected and analyzed.

The background information for this site dated the cave to approximately 46,000 cal BP, which helped to preserve the cave that the bears left behind partly due to the sinkhole. Wolves and hyenas started to frequent the cave soon after by scavenging for remains. No more activity is recorded after 44 ka cal BP because “a low-energy flooding event created the Panta Strămoșilor bone jumble” (p. 123). Humans entered the scene shortly after this time. The origins of the human remains were not able to be fully confirmed in reference to the cave system. The humans may have lived in a different part of the cave. After they died, they eventually washed down the drainage system into the place that the bear remains resided. The cave was quite an active area.

There were many different methods involved, mostly excavation and dating of the archaeological finds. They dated many things using the standard method of carbon dating. The cave was placed into grids that were “1 meter2 and then they were subdivided into 0.25 m2 excavation units (A, B, C, and D)” (p. 26). Though they did count how many items they used in each dating project and even discarded things that may have been contaminated. The excavation was also done methodically.

The advantages of using methods such as the original look and see, excavation, piecing the bones back together, and dating the bones are all beneficial to the overall project and long term goals. Looking and seeing is absolutely the best first step because we must visually acknowledge our surroundings and make educated guesses about what the site contains.

Excavation of the bones is a vital part of any archaeological site because things such as artifacts are not just on the surface, but get buried by time. The also get moved by animals, or in this case, by gravity along with water movement in the cave. Once artifacts are unburied, they must be dusted off in order to see them better. Some use water washing which was used in this instance. “The bones were unwrapped, washed in water, set to dry in plastic trays, labeled with square number plus either quadrant letter or specimen number, and then sorted anatomically” (p. 30). After these items were cleaned at the laboratory (which was a hotel room), they were logged into their spreadsheet that was updated when newer information was obtained. Keeping track of each item is absolutely vital and making sure they were coded correctly is equally as important. It seems that this indeed happened during this project. The final storage area for the remains are at the Institutul de Speologie “Emil Racoviță” in Bucharest for permanent curation (p. 15).

After the bones were cleaned, they tried matching the bones with the original animal or human remains they had found. They ultimately found 99 bear skulls and remaining bones (p. 135), 2 human skulls, a fox skull (p. 181), a domestic goat found at the end of a passage (p. 120), a hyena (p. 167), a deer (p. 189), and wolf remains (p. 173). There were also an abundance of small animal remains that still happen to frequent the cave. One of the rodents even “developed a taste for the chocolate bars brought into the cave for the excavators” (p. 185). So we must note first that the site is still occupied by living animals. Next, we can see that there was a broad array of faunal remains that could help with interpreting how the diet of the animals were along with the people and possible changes in the world. These remains are important for understanding the environment of the past, especially environments that may have changed and we are still learning about; also including environments that were isolated from the rest of the world because of things like communism, or a lack of funding or interest.

The regional importance of the site is that the human remains were not quite modern. Although not all the questions that the archaeologists asked were answered, there is still much to investigate about how these humans lived. Only two human skulls were found, no neck bones, and the total teeth between these two human remains counted to 11. It is important to note that diet was examined by the remains found using DNA sampling. The question came up of possible diet change around this time along with the cave itself going through a massive change. Along with comparing the skulls to other skulls found around the world that aged around the same time, they made hypotheses that the humans during that time interbred with people of different races and learned more about trapping for food and didn’t rely on plants as much. The archaeologists were also trying to figure out where the humans had been camping. I would have liked more examination around the site or even near the spot where they dived in order to reach the cave. The other regional importance is that these remains are some of the oldest remains in Eastern Europe. These archaeologists and scientists have analyzed and debated their findings but all agreed that these bones are the earliest directly dated human remains in Eastern Europe.

What is also important to note about the human remains is that Oase 1 is “diagnostically ‘modern’ in its overall morphology, whether considered phenetically or cladistically in a late Middle and Late Pleistocene context, but it presents a couple of unusual features, shared with few or none of the other early modern human mandibles” (p. 256). This would suggest crossbreeding between different types of people! What a great thing to discover and attempt to learn more about. Oase 2’s traits “possesses a number of archaic features but is not typical of either the archaic or the modern human groups” (p. 311). This is interesting because these skulls were found together, and both have unique attributes to them that make them all the more a mystery that I would like to solve or at least get a clearer answer to. I believe the archaeologists were expecting to find more human remains than they did. I believe they were looking for artifacts, but they only found the two skulls.

We don’t know how the humans died, but we do know that they were fairly young because of the testing for the ages of them. Their genders are not specified. For the Oase 1 mandible, they estimated the age of death was around 20 years old, give or take (p. 237). There is more information about Oase 2 because they were able to piece back together the cranium almost entirely. The established age of death for Oase 2 was approximately 15 to 18 years of age (p. 269-271). Also for Oase 2, they determined that the gender of the skull was either a “male with a short mastoid process, or a female with a rather large face. We prefer to consider Oase 2 as being of indeterminate sex” (p. 271). It is important to note that these human remains were compared to other bones dated to approximately the same time period. I find it very interesting that these two skull ages were approximately the same. To me, this suggests that they were in or near the cave around the same time in their lifespan. I wonder what was happening to these two people and if they even knew each other. Humans are social creatures so I find it strange that no more human remains were found. This of course is simply my own speculation and cannot be proved without further evidence. If water didn’t run through the cave and moved anything, perhaps artifacts would have been found?

Measurements of the bones were taken in order to compare the measurements with other bones not from this site but that dated to around the same time period. Along with measurements, there were also dating techniques. Carbon dating, radiocarbon dating, and ESR dating (Electron Spin Resonance) were used on many of the faunal remains. Some ancient DNA testing known as (aDNA) was used on some of the faunal remains as well.

Because the project is still fairly new, the project does represent a much needed study because we do not know much about cave bears considering that they have been extinct for thousands of years. We can look at modern day bears in order to compare between the two, and Romania does have a lot, but we simply don’t know why the bears went extinct and this is a very huge nest that leaves a lot of information to be collected and interpreted. What the scientists thought may have happened is that they got trapped during hibernation or they didn’t have enough fat stored up to survive the hibernation.

All of these techniques used are extremely important and beneficial to the rest of the culture and the world. They absolutely are scientific and reliable ways of not only practicing archaeology, but of analyzing the results, especially when using the date testing. We have fine technology in place that is fairly accurate considering what we know right now, and what we keep discovering in ways of improvement. It seems that everything was tagged and labeled and documented regarding where it was found, and all of these steps make for good archaeology.

There are many things to think about with this site because there was just so much information to work with. The only problem that I have is what to do with what I have learned? I chose this particular site is because I have known about it for quite some time, but I have not had the opportunity to look more deeply into it until now. The reason for my interest is because I am from Romania and I am trying to understand my past better and learn about the current culture there and what a better way to learn about it than a final project?

My first thoughts were what I had learned about from our class reading assignment book regarding how sites are supposed to be excavated and analyzed. When looking through all the pictures of the book, I couldn’t help but to notice that Ștefan Milota when holding the Oase 2 face was barehanded (p. 9). From everything I had learned about contamination, I would have wanted the archaeologists to use some sort of glove when handling the remains. I understand that the cave may have simply been too hot and humid and this was simply not possible, but what about when the remains were taken out of the cave?

I am overall impressed with the field work done and how all the people came together in order to preserve and understand this site. I learned so much about archaeology and the ways that the approaches were done in this instance seemed ethical and done properly. I am saddened that it took so long for more people to become interested, but I am glad that they finally did. I wish the funding would have been more because the laboratory was a hotel room, and this doesn’t seem like a great place to have a laboratory. I understand that many laboratories are not permanent, but if hotel cleaners are doing their job, they would still request to come into the rooms, and what if they touched something or moved it? Everything else seemed to be fine. Those two things were the only things that stuck out to me as kind of strange; overall I was very impressed with this project and hope that they continue to analyze the finds and keep the remains in a safe place. Who knows, maybe one day I will be able to visit Bucharest again, which is my city of origin and visit the museum. That is a goal for sure.

Reference: Life and Death at the Peștera cu Oase: A Setting for Modern Human Emergence in Europe. Edited by Erik Trinkaus, Silviu Constantin, João Zilhão. Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press. 2013.

Professor’s Notes: Interesting report of exploratory work and research done in the Romanian cave. I found the dating techniques used on the human skull and mandible to be fascinating. Unfortunately, these remains as well as the fauna specimens seem to have been moved and mixed during flooding episodes. Another interesting part of your report was how they set up the lab in their hotel room. This was a crafty but risky move. Getting in and out of the cave each day must have been long and hard work as was working in the dark. Your criticisms at the end of the report sections were good. It also would have been good to see a better presentation of the RC dates from the human remains. How is this site now being protected?

Scoring: Introduction: 10. Purpose: 15. Background: 15. Method: 17. Data: 18. Interpretations: 16. Total 91


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