From here. It’s a bit fluffy, but it’s good enough:
About three years ago, Dr. Ana Pinto, an archaeologist at Arizona State University, was driving past a natural outcropping in northwest Spain and – screech! – she put the brake to her car.
She had just spotted a limestone cave that she sensed might have once been settled by prehistoric humans.
For the next six months, she excavated the cave by hand, pushing through animal waste, bones, mud and human artifacts. By the time she had dug some nine feet deep, she knew she had hit the archaeological jackpot.
“This cave at SopeÃ±a is almost unique because it has signs of continuous hominid habitation for at least 60,000 years,” she said. “This is an incredibly rare find.”
Dr. Pinto, 45, who was born in Spain, came to New York City recently to receive an award from Wings WorldQuest, a foundation supporting women who make careers as explorers and scientists.
For people in her field, she said, it often pays to think “like a Neanderthal.”
Q. When you were growing up in 1970′s in Spain, did you want to be an archaeologist?
A. I didn’t want to be what my mother was. She’d stayed at home with eight children. In that time, we still had the Franco dictatorship and life was very conservative. My family, they told me, “You can be a wife or you can be a prostitute.” I read books about archaeology like “Gods, Graves and Scholars” by C. W. Ceram, and I said I wanted to do that. My family told me, “No, no, you will go off to these countries and the men will want to rape you.” I was a difficult kid for my parents.
At 15, I left their house. I joined the anti-Franco resistance. I worked in the factories to plant the idea of unions. Eventually, I went to university at night reading sociology, politics and archaeology.
Q. Your doctorate research, what was it on?
A. Cave bears. Before my research, we thought these extinct animals had been herbivorous. I showed they’d been a least partly carnivorous. In fact, they may have eaten each other.
I looked at four European caves where large numbers of their bones are found. I looked systematically at thousands of bones from different dates in prehistory to see what parts were intact, what types of tooth marks the bones had on them. Using scientific methods, I showed how the tooth marks could only have come from other cave bears – a sign of cannibalism or savaging.
This is important work. We need to know about how extinct animals lived because we cannot observe them. The same is true for prehistoric humans.
Q. Were your cave bears studies connected to your interest in prehistoric humans?
A. Absolutely. It is thought that one reason we find huge cave bear bone accumulations in European caves is that Neanderthals probably hunted them. My current research area is the extinction of Neanderthals in Europe and the spread of modern humans thought to have left Africa some 40,000 years ago. It is believed that when modern humans arrived in Europe, the Neanderthals disappeared.
With this subject, you often work in caves. All prehistoric Europeans liked living in caves. The caves had to be oriented to the southwest for sun and warmth. They needed a cave high up over a river. Why? Because the animals they hunted would come to the river to drink and from above, they could make hunting plans. Plus they needed to be near a water source for themselves.
Over the years, I found a few caves that met this requirement, but none were continuously inhabited. SopeÃ±a was rich with 16 layers of sediment, all with signs of the earliest humans. The cave’s habitation spans Neanderthal times and the beginnings of modern humans in Europe. Because of this, SopeÃ±a is like a book that has all the pages. There are no pages missing.
Q. Are there clues at SopeÃ±a to why the Neanderthals disappeared?
A. One of prehistory’s big questions is, Why did the Neanderthals become extinct at roughly the same moment that Homo sapiens arrived from Africa? At SopeÃ±a we may learn if there were significant differences in behaviors that gave an edge to modern humans. Could it have been diet or the way they processed food?
Q. So you’re studying prehistoric diets?
A. Yes. We look for remains like bones, charcoals from their fires and tools. From this we can learn how their diet changed over time. It’s like we’re digging through prehistoric domestic waste. One thing we’re learning through isotopic analysis of Neanderthal bones shows that they were almost entirely carnivores.
Q. Are you saying Neanderthal man was on a variant of the Atkins diet?
A. They mostly ate meat. And you need carbohydrates. We’re finding that modern humans, coming from Africa, had a diet much more variable than Neanderthals.
It’s always been thought about the Neanderthal extinction that Homo sapiens appeared in Europe and outcompeted Neanderthals. But it’s not so easy. Forty thousand years ago was the last ice age. In that time, many animals became extinct. If Neanderthals survived on mammal meat and those animals were nowhere to be found, they were in trouble.
And then you had modern man coming in from Africa, where there weren’t seasons. They were eating seafood and vegetables and grasses, even fat extracted from bones by boiling them. It is possible this gave them an edge. We may find out. The National Geographic Society has just given me a grant to dig at SopeÃ±a for another full year.
Q. As we talk, one senses you’re a big Neanderthal booster. What do you like about them?
A. They were able to exist in a highly inhospitable environment in Europe, from approximately the years 200,000 B.C. to 40,000 B.C. They made a living in the midst of repeated glaciations. They hunted and ate big mammals, and they seem to have been healthy. So certainly they were very well adapted to their own way of life. It’s unfair to think of them as brutish creatures. They deserve respect.
Q. Your family lives in Oviedo, only an hour’s drive from the cave. Were you visiting with them when you discovered it?
A. No. The mayor of the county gave me a contract to be the county’s archaeologist. There are many caves in the Asturias region because it is an area of limestone formations. My job was to find new caves.
When I passed this place, it looked right. The entrance was facing the right way. I had been looking for a cave like this one for years. When I was looking at cave bear bones, I was always hoping I’d find human archaeological deposits. But I found nothing. I was so lucky at SopeÃ±A. I could have died without ever finding it.
Q. Now that you’re an internationally celebrated archaeologist, what does your mother think of your life choices?
A. Spanish society has changed, and so has my mother. Life, reality, changes you.
When I received the Women of Discovery Award from Wings WorldQuest the other night, my mother came for the ceremony. She was proud of this once difficult kid.