The Mediterranean is a hot spot for climate change. Understanding how prehistoric populations have responded to environmental changes and sea-level fluctuations over the past 400,000 years will enable the cultural heritage of the past to inform possible future cultural responses to climate change and sea-level rise. The SPHeritage project applies a new interdisciplinary approach to investigate how prehistoric human populations of the Palaeolithic (the last Neanderthals and the earliest European populations of Homo sapiens) responded to environmental variations related to sea-level fluctuations in the Ligurian-Provençal Region. The novel approach combines modern techniques of micro-invasive geology with palaeontological and archaeological analyses and a critical revision of stratigraphic series from past excavations.

The archaeological area of ​​Balzi Rossi (Ventimiglia, adjacent to the Italian-French border) is one of the most important sites for the study of Palaeolithic settlements within the Mediterranean and Europe. The Balzi Rossi site, extending along a steep limestone cliff, is composed of multiple karstic caves containing both marine and continental deposits providing a unique opportunity for the investigation of Palaeolithic cultural response to sea-level fluctuation and associated climatic change. During interglacial periods (peak warm climatic phases), the coastal environment of the Balzi Rossi area was similar to the present as evidenced by the preservation of tidal and abrasion notches, associated marine bio-encrustations, and sandy coastal deposits containing marine fauna in and adjacent to numerous caves. During cold climatic phases, sea level was up to one hundred meters lower than today and a coastal plain (now submerged), up to 10 km wide, separated the coast from the Balzi Rossi cliff. The continental sediments preserved within the caves, deposited during the cooler phases of lowered sea level, contain artifacts of the lithic industry and marine molluscs used for both food and ornamental purposes.

The interdisciplinary approach of the SPHeritage project will result in an informed assessment of the behavioural and land use response of Palaeolithic populations to their environment as affected by sea-level fluctuations and associated climatic variability. These results will help inform possible cultural responses to projections of future climatic change and sea-level rise in the Mediterranean.