Meeting the Neanderthals and Cro Magnons again

Dark clouds and rain welcomed us this morning on our way to Le Moustier. I really like this site, with its archaeological history and with all the stories surrounding the excavation of the site. Of course it is all about Otto Hauser and Denis Peyrony, whose personalities once again clashed here.

Unfortunately much of the famous Neanderthal skeleton of Le Moustier, which had once cost a fortune for the Museum in Berlin, is lost. But thanks to Peyrony, who preserved a whole Neanderthal grave and moved it complete with its sediments to the Museum at Les Eyzies, Bruno Maureille could excavate the whole package decades later and publish a nice account on the ontogeny of young Neanderthals. The stratigraphy, which is now visible in Le Moustier, is a cast, of course. But a very nice one, showing alternating fluvial sediments and Mousterian layers at the base, and different Mousterian layers (Mousterian of Acheulean tradition, typical Mousterian), with visible flint tools and fire places in the upper part. Not to forget the Châtelperronian and Aurignacian layers in the very top. Despite all the excavations at Le Moustier, much of the original layers are still in place under the building on the side of the old excavation and these can be excavated by later generations.

La Ferrassie is one of the few places in Europe where seven Neanderthal graves have been found. Actually only forty graves are known in all of Europe, and seven of these are from La Ferrassie. But also here, excavations had been made long ago, and without modern excavation techniques. Archaeologists who try to interpret the finds thus have to rely on the old documentations. New excavations of the Mousterian layers are currently carried out by Alain Turq and Harold Dibble, mainly to being able to better date the Mousterian layers, in which the famous graves had been found. By the end of the year the scientists hope to obtain the first ESR dates on animal teeth, which could give us a clue about the age of the graves.

Abri Pataud is the direct opposite to Le Moustier and La Ferrassie. Here we have a nice stratigraphy, modern excavation techniques, and the combined use of botany, zoology and geology to reconstruct the environment during the Aurignacian, Gravettian and Solutrean. When I first visited this site 28 years ago as a young student, I was so impressed by all the work that had been done here, and thought that my future as a geologist would lie in cave stratigraphies! But this was not the case, and it is probably much better that I am focusing on lakes, which have much more undisturbed stratigraphies. New radiocarbon dates that were recently published for Abri Pataud (Highham et al. 2011: New radiocarbon dates for Abri Pataud)now allow revising the chronological context. But these new dates have still not been incorporated in the information shown alongside the stratigraphies.

Our final meeting today was with the Magdalenians in Rouffignac Cave. But before we took the little train deep down into the center of the Earth, we made a short stop to look at the newly opened shop of the Plassard family, where they sell local produces, and especially their own goose and duck products. I can tell you that their Foie Gras d’Oie and de Canard is delicious!!

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