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Excavation of an Upper Palaeolithic hearth at Pupicina Cave

Pupicina Cave Project


Changing Paleoenvironments and Hunter-Gatherer Strategies in the Northern Adriatic Basin.

Project Director
  • Dr. Preston Miracle, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge.
Research Aims and Current Results

This 5-year project (1995-1999) of systematic excavation and testing of limestone caves is investigating variability and change in hunter-gatherer strategies in southeastern Europe from the end of the last ice age to the appearance of farming communities (approximately 13,000-6,000 years Before Present). The primary objectives of the project are to document Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic cultures in the northern Adriatic region (Istria Peninsula, Republic of Croatia) and to situate these activities and strategies in their paleoenvironmental and cultural contexts.

The focus of the project is ongoing, systematic excavations at [Pupicina] Cave. Test excavations at neighboring caves (Vesanska, Vela, Klanjceva, and Sebrn Caves) are providing a framework for studying the prehistoric human ecology of the micro-region (c. 10 sqkm) around Vranja Canyon on the southern and western slopes of Ucka and Cicarija Mountains in northeastern Istria.

Pupicina Cave is a 25m wide by 30m deep, well-lit, triangular cavity in limestone that faces the southeast. Hidden in a narrow, limestone canyon (elevation 220m/sl), it would have been well-placed to take advantage of a variety of microhabitats, perhaps including marshes to the south, riverine woodlands and plains in its immediate vicinity, rolling hills and uplands to the north, and rugged, steep, and montane environments to the east.

Excavations in 1995-96 exposed the upper 3.5 m of a deep sequence of sediments rich in archaeological remains from the Late Upper Palaeolithic (c. 10,600 BP) to the Bronze Age (c. 3300 BP). Late Upper Palaeolithic layers contain small hearths, faunal (mostly bones of red deer, pig, and roe deer), and lithic remains that appear to have been rapidly buried by wind-blown silts. This depositional context suggests fairly brief visits to the cave at a time when climatic conditions were relatively cool and dry compared to climates in the region today. Dramatic increases in the density of lithic artifacts and food waste in the early postglacial (c. 10,000--9,000 BP) suggest that people started to visit the cave more frequently and for longer periods of time. Mesolithic occupants diversified their subsistence strategies by increasing their take of small mammals (e.g. badger and hare), by collecting thousands of edible land snails, and by eating marine shellfish (Mytilus sp.) that would have been moved over 20 kilometres from the coast. Studies of tooth eruption and development on wild boar, roe deer, and red deer jaws suggests hunting during the autumn. Several human finger and toe bones were also found among the animal food refuse in the Mesolithic middens. After a several thousand year hiatus in occupation, there are sparse remains from the Neolithic, followed by a more intensive use of the site during the Bronze Age. The final use of the cave (starting during or after the Bronze Age) is that of domestic animal pen, as indicated by widespread lenses of ash and fine charcoal particles that appear to have formed from burning animal dung across much of the cave surface.

Research goals of current and upcoming field seasons are the exposure of Mesolithic and Upper Palaeolithic levels over wide areas to study the spatial organization of human activities in Pupicina Cave, and the comparison of Pupicina Cave to broadly contemporaneous sites in the micro-region to better understand human responses to cultural and environmental changes associated with the Pleistocene-Holocene transition and spread of food production. [...]

Project phase

  • Third field season
Collaborating Institutions and Project Members
  • Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge: Dr. P. Galanidou.
  • Department of Archaeology, University of Zagreb: Dr. N. Majnaric-Pandzic, S. Vrdoljak, Dr. S. Forenbaher.
  • Archaeological Museum of Istria: Dr. Z. Ujcic.
  • Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts: Dr. M. Paunovic.
Financial Support
  • British Academy -
  • McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge
  • International Research and Exchanges Board, USA.

Grahame Clark Archeozoology Laboratory

The Archaeozoology Laboratory houses a wide range of research projects in zooarchaeology and osteoarchaeology under the general direction of Dr Preston Miracle of the Department of Archaeology. [...]

In addition to his work within the laboratory, Dr. Miracle in 1998 continued his excavation and survey of Late Pleistocene-Holocene caves and rockshelters in northeastern Istria, Croatia.  His international team completed a fourth excavation season at Pupicina Cave, tested three other cave sites in the region, conducted the first excavations in Croatia of an open-air Mesolithic site, extracted pollen cores from three local sites, and undertook an initial palaeogeographic survey of Istria.

Red deer bone from Pupicina Cave

The primary focus of the 1998 season was the exposure of cultural layers at Pupicina Cave that date to the very end of the Pleistocene (c. 10,000 BP). The site produced outstanding results, including several exquisitely preserved hearths with associated scatters of flaked stone tools, animal bones and snail shells, that were stratified within essentially sterile silts.  Analysis of the detailed distributional data should reveal interesting information about the organisation of activities around hearths and the use of space within the cave.  Exciting finds included a large number of beads made on Columbella sea shells and red deer teeth, finely retouched microlithic points, and bone points and awls.  Detailed analyses of the animal bones, dominated by red deer and pig, are providing fascinating insights into changes in the organisation of food preparation, consumption, and disposal across the Pleistocene-Holocene transition.

In addition to Pupicina, the test excavation at Kotle provides the first concrete evidence of Mesolithic activities in Istria at an open-air site rather than a cave or rockshelter. Ongoing survey has documented over 100 caves and rockshelters in the region. A final field season planned for 1999 will expand excavations at Kotle and explore earlier payers of human occupation at Pupicina Cave.

Reprinted by permission from:

  • Copyright © University of Cambridge 1998, 1999. All rights reserved.
  • Dr. Preston Miracle, The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research ANNUAL REPORT 1997-8 Laboratories -  Copyright © University of Cambridge. For further information please contact Jenny Doole ( First mounted November, 1998.  All rights reserved.

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Created: Monday, January 3, 2000; Last Updated: Saturday, April 09, 2016
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