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The time between Palaeolithic hearths


Resolving the timescale of human activity in the Palaeolithic Age is one of the most challenging problems in prehistoric archaeology. The duration and frequency of hunter-gatherer camps reflect key aspects of social life and human–environment interactions. However, the time dimension of Palaeolithic contexts is generally inaccurately reconstructed because of the limitations of dating techniques1, the impact of disturbing agents on sedimentary deposits2 and the palimpsest effect3,4. Here we report high-resolution time differences between six Middle Palaeolithic hearths from El Salt Unit x (Spain) obtained through archaeomagnetic and archaeostratigraphic analyses. The set of hearths covers at least around 200–240 years with 99% probability, having decade- and century-long intervals between the different hearths. Our results provide a quantitative estimate of the time framework for the human occupation events included in the studied sequence. This is a step forward in Palaeolithic archaeology, a discipline in which human behaviour is usually approached from a temporal scale typical of geological processes, whereas significant change may happen at the smaller scales of human generations. Here we reach a timescale close to a human lifespan.

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Fig. 1: Plane layout and cross-sections representing the relative position of all the materials from El Salt stratigraphic subunit xb studied.
Fig. 2: Example of time estimation steps using the mean directions of H50 and H59 and SHA.DIF.14k reconstruction.
Fig. 3: Summary of the estimated minimum time differences between the studied hearths.

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Data availability

Archaeomagnetic dataset is available at MagIC database ( Archaeostratigraphic data are included in the main figures, Extended Data figures and Supplementary Note 2.

Code availability

The program designed for the temporal calculations is available at (ref. 50) and at


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We thank J. A. Espinosa for his help during the first sampling season in 2014 and everyone who participated in the excavation seasons. Thanks also to A. Dinckal for his advice. A.H.-L. thanks the Junta de Castilla y León and the European Regional Development Fund (postdoctoral contract project BU037P23), the Spanish Ministry of University and European Union-NextGenerationEU (Margarita Salas grants 2022–2024) and Junta de Castilla y León and European Social Fund, (predoctoral contracts’ programme—ORDEN EDU/310/2015, de 10 de abril; 2015–2019) for financial support. S.S.-R. is grateful for the support of a Generalitat Valenciana predoctoral contract (ACIF/2021/407 2021–2025). A.M. is thankful for a Universitat d’Alacant predoctoral contract (UAFPU2018-049 2019–2022). M.S.S.-B. acknowledges with thanks the support of contract CT36/22-16-UCM-INV (European Union-Next Generation EU). The support of the projects HAR2015-68321-P and CGL2016-77560-C2 (Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness and European Regional Development Fund), BU235P18 (Junta de Castilla y León and European Regional Development Fund), BU037P23 (Junta de Castilla y León and the European Regional Development Fund), PID2019-107113RB-I00, PID2019-105796GB-I00, PID2019-108753GB-C21 and PID2020-113316GB-I00 (Agencia Estatal de Investigación, Spain; AEI /10.13039/501100011033), PALEOCHAR–648871 (ERC Consolidator Grant) and Neandertal Fire Technology Project (The Leakey Foundation, Neandertal Fire Technology Project) is also appreciated. We also thank Museu Arqueòlogic Municipal Camil Visedo Moltó, Ajuntament d’Alcoi, Direcció General de Patrimoni de la Generalitat Valenciana.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



A.H.-L., A.C., J.J.V., C.M. and C.M.H. performed the conceptualization. A.H.-L., A.C. and J.J.V. performed the archaeomagnetic sampling, archaeomagnetic analyses and their interpretation. F.J.P.-C. and M.S.S.-B. developed and carried out the statistical procedures for the temporal estimations based on archaeomagnetic data. A.M., S.S.-R. and C.M.H. developed the archaeostratigraphic analyses. C.M., C.M.H. and B.G. directed the excavation at El Salt. A.H.-L., A.M., S.S.-R., A.C., J.J.V., C.M., C.M.H., F.J.P.-C. and M.S.S.-B. wrote and reviewed the paper with contributions of all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ángela Herrejón-Lagunilla.

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Nature thanks Ségolène Vandevelde and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Images from El Salt site and surrounding area.

(a) General view of El Salt, with the travertine wall on the right. (b) View of the surrounding area of El Salt (yellow star indicates the location of the archaeological site). (c) Plan drawing of El Salt site. The materials studied here are from the Lower Excavation Area.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Section of Hearth H55.

The typical stratigraphy of this type of structure is observed: white layer at the top, black layer at the base.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Representative image of an excavation surface within Unit x at the Inner Part of El Salt.

The complexity of sedimentary facies, hearths and abundant archaeological materials (marked with color pins) is visible.

Extended Data Fig. 4 General archaeostratigraphic sequence of Unit xb based on excavation and field observations.

It shows the stratigraphic relationships among combustion structures and material beds (hearths selected for this study in bold).

Extended Data Fig. 5 Archaeostratigraphic matrix.

It shows the relationships among the material beds associated with the hearths included in this study.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Thermomagnetic curves of representative samples of white (a-c) and black layers (d-f) from the studied hearths.

Paramagnetic correction was applied in all cases. Red and blue lines indicate the heating and cooling cycles, respectively. This experiment was performed on 11 different representative samples.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Equal area projections of the studied hearths showing the mean archaeomagnetic directions related to the last combustion event and their respective circle of confidence at 95% probability (p = 0.05) or α95 (pink symbols) and the ChRM direction calculated from each specimen (black symbols represent downward inclination).

From left to right, starting with the top row: H34 (16 specimens from 2 oriented blocks), H57 (5 specimens from 1 oriented block), H55 (21 specimens from 4 oriented blocks), H48 (7 specimens from 1 oriented block), H59 (8 specimens from 1 oriented block), H50 (9 specimens from 1 oriented block). Calculations are based on Fisher’s statistics41. Statistical details are shown in Table 1. Thermal demagnetization of Natural Remanent Magnetization (NRM) is performed only once on each specimen due to the irreversible character of the experiment (it causes the progressive destruction of the original NRM). For this reason, a minimum of 8 specimens per hearth were demagnetized to obtain directional data. Specimens shown here correspond to those accepted after filtering (Supplementary Methods 1).

Extended Data Fig. 8 Orthogonal NRM demagnetization diagrams of some representative specimens and their respective normalized intensity decay plots: a) D1AX1, b) E1BX2, c) C2CX1, d) E4C3X.

Solid/open symbols in orthogonal diagrams correspond to the vector endpoints’ projections onto the horizontal/vertical plane. These specimens mainly contain thermally altered substrate, although (d) may include traces of ash. NRM values are normalized by the estimation of specimens’ mass excluding plaster content. Steps below 200 °C were disregarded to avoid any viscous influence.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Directional data from the H50 ash layer.

(a) Representative example of orthogonal NRM demagnetization diagram of a specimen from block C1 (white layer from H50) and its respective normalized intensity decay plot. Symbols as in Extended Data Fig. 7. (b) Equal area projection of the mean direction of ChRM (related to the burning event), along with their respective α95 (circle of confidence at 95% probability; p = 0.05), calculated with specimens from block C1 (yellow; 9 specimens from 1 oriented block; k = 133.2; α95 = 4.5°) vs. direction calculated with H50 specimens selected for the final direction (blue; 9 specimens from 1 oriented block; k = 105.9; α95 = 5.0°). Directions for individual specimens are also shown (lighter colored symbols). C1 specimens are affected by flattening (see Supplementary Methods 1). Solid symbols represent downward inclination. NRM values are normalized by the estimation of specimens’ mass excluding plaster content. (WL = White Layer). Calculations of mean directions are based on Fisher’s statistics41. Thermal demagnetization of Natural Remanent Magnetization (NRM) is performed only once on each specimen due to the irreversible character of the experiment (it causes the progressive destruction of the original NRM). For this reason, a minimum of 8 specimens per hearth was demagnetized to obtain directional data. Specimens shown here correspond to those accepted after filtering (Supplementary Methods 1).

Extended Data Table 1 Estimation of the time elapsed between fires (Δtmin) according to the different reconstructions

Supplementary information

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This Supplementary Information file contains Supplementary Notes 1–3, Supplementary Methods 1–3, and additional references.

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Herrejón-Lagunilla, Á., Villalaín, J.J., Pavón-Carrasco, F.J. et al. The time between Palaeolithic hearths. Nature 630, 666–670 (2024).

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