September 4, 2020 at 9:09 am

Curran Digs into Animal Fossils in Romania in Search of Human Migration Answers

Their surveys and excavations have produced some striking discoveries, including the lower half of a mammoth, which they discovered in 2012. "Part of its femur was eroded out, and the lower half of it was already eroded away," Curran explains. "We were able to locate the top half of the femur including the femoral head, most of the pelvis and several lumbar and caudal (tail) vertebrae - all in situ and articulated positions. At that point, we had to stop." The fossil was wedged into the side of a steep hill, requiring digging further into the hillside, removing some trees at the top of the hill, and then digging down from the top of the hill. With the funds granted by the NSF the group will be able to return to Romania and continue their research in the summer of 2017, with the assistance of students from the University of Arkansas and OHIO Anthropology’s Samantha Gogol '16. Curran hopes that to finish excavating the mammoth skeleton and find even more exposures in order to help better describe the environment of the Olteţ River Valley during the Pleistocene.

Dr. Sabrina Curran in lab at Institute of Speleology in Romania with the newly excavated partial mammoth skeleton

If early human ancestors (hominins) dispersing from Africa into Eurasia 2 million years ago moved through southern Romania, they would have found monkeys on foot rather than in trees, short-necked giraffes, rhinos, and saber-toothed cats—quite different from the Europe of today.

During the early Pleistocene of Eurasia, these hominins also would have encountered significantly different environments from those that exist today, and probing the fossil record—particularly the fauna (animals)—can help shed light on how hominins lived then and the implications for today.

Dr. Sabrina Curran is part of a research team digging further into the fossil record in one possible pathway for that migration, the Olteţ River Valley in southern Romania. Fossil hominins have been found in Georgia to the east of Romania dating to 1.8 million years ago and Spain to the west 1.4 million years ago, so the team is searching for evidence of hominin presence in Romania.

Curran, assistant professor of Anthropology at Ohio University, is working to both identify the fossilized fauna (taxonomy) and place them in time chronologically. The site she is working at, Grăunceanu near Craiova, is well-known for its rich deposit of fossils originally discovered in the 1960s. Thousands of  fossils were collected during that time, half of which are now stored at the “Emil Racoviţă” Institute of Speleology in Bucharest. The team plans to return to Romania in 2021 to study the other half of the collection, currently stored in the Museum of Oltenia in Craiova.

Curran and an international research team are taking a two-pronged approach, investigating the fossils in storage and doing additional fieldwork.

What have they found so far?

  • A diversity of animal species, including animals no longer in existence.
  • Fossil remains of animals similar to modern-day moose, bison, deer, horse, ostrich, pig and many others.
  • Some animals not previously identified in the area.
  • A fossil species of pangolin, which were thought to have existed in Europe during the early Pleistocene but had not been solidly confirmed until now.
  • Previously undocumented fossil deposits in the Olteţ River Valley.

Results of the work by project leaders Curran, Claire Terhune (University of Arkansas), Alexandru Petculecu (“Emil Racoviţă” Institute of Speleology), and their international team are published in the journal Quaternary International.


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