The Ancient Adriatic Plain: An LGM Human Refugium?

When we think of the Ice Ages images of frozen landscapes and mammoths tend to come to mind. And whereas this was indeed the case in many parts of the world during the Pleistocene, not all regions were affected to the same extent by global cooling.

In Europe large ice sheets grew over Britain and Scandinavia. During their period of maximum expansion around 20,000 years ago −known as the Last Glacial Maximum or LGM− the Scandinavian ice sheet reached as far south as Germany and Poland.

Ice sheet Britannica
European ice sheets
Image source: Britannica Online for Kids

The ice cover made it difficult, if not impossible, for temperate species to survive in most parts of central and northern Europe and so they retreated to and/or became isolated in Europe’s three southern and warmer refugia: Iberia, Italy and the Balkans. 

But… Where did people go? 

Abundant archaeological evidence for this time period has been found in the Iberian refugium, especially in the regions of Asturias and Cantabria (northern Spain) and their French neighbours (Midi-Pyrenees, Dordogne…). Their culture is known as the Solutrean after the site of Solutré in southern Burgundy.

By comparison to Iberia, however, very little archaeological evidence for the LGM has been found in the other two European refugial areas: Italy and the Balkans. Although ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ could it be that these two areas were not as densely populated during the LGM as were northern Spain/southwestern France? Or are we missing something?

Submerged Prehistoric Landscapes: The Adriatic

As was noted above, most parts of northern and central Europe were covered by ice sheets, and, in order for these to grow, they sucked up moisture, leading to a global sea-level drop of 120 metres. As a result, shallow areas of seas and oceans became exposed and the shapes of continents looked very different from what they do today.

European Continental Shelf  20,000 years agoSource: SPLASHCOS
European Continental Shelf 20,000 years ago
Image source: SPLASHCOS

In Europe, for example, because the Adriatic Sea is mostly between 20 and 200 metres deep, this meant that during the 120-metre sea-level drop at the height of the LGM, two-thirds of the land between Italy and the Balkans became exposed. So whereas now Italy and the Balkans are separated by the crystalline waters of the Adriatic, 20,000 years ago these peninsulas would have been connected by the so-called Ancient Adriatic Plain. The presence of this exposed Plain not only made it possible to move between the two peninsulas ‘easily’, but also provided new areas for humans to settle in. Therefore, could it be that Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers were living on this now-submerged Plain and not in Italy and the Balkans?

If humans were indeed densely populating the Ancient Adriatic Plain this might then explain why little archaeological evidence has been discovered, in comparison to Iberia, in the two other European temperate refugia for the LGM.

Although underwater archaeology is now a reality in prehistoric research, erosional activity in the Adriatic since the start of the Holocene means that, even if human habitation did indeed take place on the Plain during the LGM, its traces are long gone and direct archaeological assessment is unfortunately impossible.

How else can we assess whether humans may have been present on the Ancient Adriatic Plain during the Last Glacial Maximum?

The 1000+ Croatian islands on the Adriatic −which would have represented high points on the Ancient Adriatic Plain during its exposure− hold the key to this question…

Stay tuned for a future post on how the study of the Palaeolithic faunal material recovered at the cave site of Vela Spila on the island of Korčula has provided new and exciting data to the study of human refugia in Europe.


Interested in submerged prehistory? Check out the SPLASHCOS website and learn more about this four-year (2009-2013)  research network funded by the European Commission’s COST programme (Cooperation in Science and Technology). 

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