Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Neandertal Legacy

The genetic material of currently living Europeans is partly of Neandertal origin. Were our ancestors successful because they were hybridising and interacting with the local populations they encountered when migrating into new places? Reconstructing our evolutionary trajectory is key for rethinking who we are, and how we are connected to each other.

Marie Soressi
Westerdijk grant Westerdijk grant


Using interdisciplinary archaeology and with funding from the Dutch Research council (VICI and Westerdijk awards), M. Soressi and her team investigate contacts and interactions between Neandertals and early modern humans 40,000 year ago in Europe.

We study a diversity of archaeological contexts in Europe where fauna and ornaments are preserved. Because the frequency of cultural interaction between Neandertals and anatomically modern humans appears to be low, we start from sites where interaction scenarios have been previously hypothesized but remain unverified. With our team and in collaboration with local researchers, talents, and stakeholders, we work in France, Romania and Italy.

We run excavation and we also study all preserved artefact types because different domains of material culture, such as personal ornaments or domestic tools, are known in the ethnographic record to react differently to cultural interactions. Changes in one part of the technological system often imply changes in other parts.

As part of the project, Marie Soressi produced a documentary which focuses on the Neandertal Legacy.

Watch the documentary Neandertal Legacy

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Revolutionary techniques

To reconstruct site formation processes, we use a holistic geoarchaeological approach focusing not only on the sedimentary record (in collaboration with the ICAREHB in Portugal and other geoarchaeologists in France and in the Netherlands), but also on the embedded artefacts. We consider artefacts as key source of information to reconstruct taphonomy.

Sedimentary aDNA is a revolutionary technique which enables the retrieval of DNA, including human, directly from sediment. In collaboration with the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, we perform systematic, large-scale screening of sediment samples to better understand who was living where and when. We are also exploring new ways to extract genetic and populational information from the archaeological record.

At the site we excavate, we do radiometric dating with as many dating techniques as possible and work closely with the University of Wollongong in Australia for OSL single grain dating and the University of Bologna for C14 dating.

We are always interested in developing new techniques to better reconstruct the past. The product of M. Soressi excavation has often been used to develop several technical breakthroughs including the zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry applied to the Paleolithic (Welker et al. 2016) or the extraction of aDNA from the sediment (Slon et al. 2017).

We involve local stakeholders to our excavation, and try to answer their questions, whether this is during open days, visits on-site or in writing, interviews, and publications.

Funding comes mostly from a VICI (VI.C.191.070) and a Westerdijk grants awarded to M. Soressi in 2018 and 2020. Extra funding for the excavation comes from the French Ministry of Culture and Leiden University. We are grateful to our collaborators and volunteers for the energy and talent they put into reconstructing the Neandertal Legacy.

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