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Archaeologist Wei Chu explores Carpathian caves with Gerda Henkel grant

Recently, archaeologist Dr Wei Chu received a grant from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung for an excavation in the Carpathian Mountains. Originally planning for an excavation in Ukraine, his plans were disrupted by the war. ‘We had to change plans really quickly.’

Mammoth bone constructions

Together with Ukrainian archaeologists, Chu would have been excavating a Palaeolithic site that is known for its mammoth bone construction. ‘With the war breaking out, we had to cancel the plans in April. The location of the site has not been affected by the war directly, but all our Ukrainian colleagues have been drafted in the defense force. So there is nobody to work with.’

Palaeolithic Caves in the Carpathians

In need of a new research project that fits his focus on early human activities in Europe, Chu thought of reviving and earlier project. ‘Back in 2019 I did some survey work on Palaeolithic caves in the Carpathian Mountains. So when it was clear that Ukraine was off the table, I decided that this was a good project to apply for funding for.’ The Gerda Henkel Stiftung offers swift procedures for fieldwork grants. ‘In three months you know whether you receive it or not.’

Funding was granted and now Chu is preparing for an excavation in the winter of 2022-2023. ‘We will excavate one of the caves that I visited in 2019. It's a pretty interesting area, very close to the oldest human remains found in Europe.’ The project will focus on a gorge in which some early research has taken place. Abbé Breuil, godfather of Palaeolithic archaeology, had a test trench here, in which they found many artefacts, from Roman pottery all the way to the Palaeolithic. One of the main things we want to recover is Ancient DNA. It is a very well preserved cave.’

Wei Chu (left) visited the cave in 2019

Fossils and artefacts

The project is expected to locate evidence of the earliest modern humans in Europe, and of Neanderthals. ‘We now have really good evidence of cultural aspects in open sites, like Româneşti, and we have found many fossils of these early humans. However, we have never really found the human fossils in association with artefacts.’ This has probably partly to do with bad bone preservation in open air sites, but that does not explain the lack of this association in caves. ‘It could be that these early humans did not use caves as much as we think. Or that this has just not been explored well enough. Many of the old excavations in the Carpathians date from a century ago. This is what we want to figure out.’

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