Au revoir Les Eyzies

It is time to say good-bye to this beautiful place, the Vézère Valley, Les Eyzies, Beune and all the Neanderthals and Cro Magnons. But already in September we will be back, and then again in May next year, and probably many more years to come.

Yesterday’s last excursion day had the same schedule as last week’s excursion: a visit to the flint workshop, where Bernard Ginelli showed how to make a biface (Mousterian of Acheulean type), a racloir and a burin (Mousterian typique). He had also prepared a few Mousterian tools for me to take home. I will place these together with all our skulls in the display case on floor 2, and will of course use them for next year’s course in Human Evolution.

Abri du Poisson was next, then a quick round in the museum, and finally the lecture by Will Banks from Bordeaux University, who replaced Francesco d’Errico, last week’s lecturer. Similar to Francesco’s lecture, Will also talked about symbolism, but added some recent results from his own research within the Tracsymbol project, a ERC project led by Christopher Henshilwood (Bergen University) and Francesco d’Errico (Bordeaux University). Some ten to fifteen years ago, most people thought that the use of symbolism and art by the first Homo sapiens in Europe only started about 40,000 years ago. However archaeological work in Africa allowed tracking the use of symbols much farther back in time, and currently the oldest finds of ochre (which may have been used as body paint) date to more than 100,000 years ago. Some of the most spectacular finds are large Abalone shells, which were used as containers for paint some 100,000 years ago! It is also often still assumed that Neanderthals were quite simple, meat-eating wild beasts. But this is not true at all! Our dear cousins also used symbols, painted their bodies, and made elaborated tools. These were different of course from Anatomically Modern Humans (AHM, Homo sapiens), but they clearly show that the people who made them had to know how the end product should look like. Within Tracsymbol, Will’s research is directed at modelling the actual and potential niches occupied by Neanderthals and AMH during different time intervals. He can for example show that the Neanderthals greatly reduced their geographical range during and after the cold and dry interval at around 40,000 years ago, although they potentially could have used a much larger area for food supply. In contrast, AHMs expanded, and moved into completely new areas, despite of climatic and environmentally difficult conditions. Science moves really fast in this field and it will be great to see more fascinating results emerging from the Tracsymbol project in the coming years.

Before leaving Les Eyzies, I would like to thank all the people who helped making this year’s excursion to the Vézère Valley such a success: the staff and guides at the Musée National de la Préhistoire in Les Eyzies, at Font de Gaume and Cap Blanc; the Plassard family in Rouffignac; our bus drivers from Voyages Rey; Bernard Ginelli, the champion of flint tools; the Jugie family at Laugerie Basse; everyone at the Auberge du Musée – our internet refuge; and of course Madame Spadi at Beune, whose little gîte provides us with the perfect tranquility to recover after long excursion days.

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