Hominids in France

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© Bob Denton 2014

(Work in progress.)

France has proven to be rich in finds of early hominids.

A 450,000 year-old fossil record was found at the Arago cave in Tautavel in the Pyrénées-Orientales département of Languedoc-Roussillon. The cave had been discovered originally in 1828 but it was not until the 1960s that the fossils were discovered. These were named Tautavel Man a sub-group of Homo erectus; it had lived in France from 950,000 up to 80,000 years ago.

The two skeletons discovered were of a forty-year-old female and a twenty-something male that had some Neanderthal features. The cave floor debris has been measured by different processes to suggest that it had been occupied from 600,000 to 400,000 BP.

The most complete Neanderthal skeleton, at that time, was discovered in 1908 at La-Chapelle-aux-Saints in the Corrèze département of Limousin; it was assessed as 50,000 years old. They have since been shown to have been present in France from 80,000 to 30,000 years ago.

An early paper on the find sought to exaggerate its description as something of a caricatured stooping ape. More considered assessment has found this was a 30 to 40 year old male with arthritis of the hip, shoulder, neck and back, there was also evidence of a broken rib and he had lost most of his molar teeth.

The discovery of human and hyena remains in a decorated cave system at « Les Garennes » near the village of Vilhonneur (Charente), just 500 m from the well-known cave of Placard (Clottes et al.,1991), is extraordinary.

“Saint-Cesaire Neandertal”, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis
Discovered by Francois Leveque in 1979 near the village of Saint-Cesaire in France. It consisted of a badly crushed skeleton. The skull was mostly complete, with only the back of the cranium missing. It is dated at about 35,000 years old, and is one of the latest Neandertals known. This find was of special interest because it was found with tools that had previously been assumed to belong to the Cro-Magnon culture, instead of the usual Neandertal tool kit.

NW of Mèze. Just north of the A9 2 km NW of Mèze. Dinosaur nests being discovered all the time on site and displays of bones traded from other sites. [More ???]

Five skeletons from about 35,000 BP were found in caves in southwestern France in 1868. These were formally classified as EEMHs or European Early Modern Humans. But they are more familiarly referred to as Cro-Magnon, named for the cave in which they were found in the Occitan region of southwest France close to Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil. Cro-Magnon literally means big cliff.

The term Cro-Magnon has no formal status in scientific terms, it is in fact a Homo sapiens sapiens.

Cro-Magnons lived from 35,000 to 10,000 BP and differed from the Neanderthal in having higher foreheads (without heavy brows) and a strong chin, they were also taller at 1.8 metres (5ft 10ins). The Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon periods crossed over by perhaps two thousand years and this and several features suggests there was inter-breeding between the two.

Cro-Magnons were anatomically similar to our modern form but had a slightly larger brain, broader faces and were more muscular than us. Cro-Magnons lived in caves, and later began to fabricate more complex stone tools and socially developed a series of rituals; perhaps it was one of these that led to them producing cave drawings.

Some 350 cave sites have been discovered in Europe stretching from the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula all the way to the Urals. Half of these caves are located in France. One particularly fruitful region is around the Dordogne and particularly the valley of its tributary, the Vézère.

They have been shown to have developed the use tools and weapons, they had a language for communication, wore animal skins and fabricated cloth and jewellery. They also developed burial rituals.

Humans have inhabited Marseille and its environs for almost 30,000 years: palaeolithic cave paintings in the underwater Cosquer Cave near the calanque of Morgiou date back to between 27,000 and 19,000 BC; and recent excavations near the railway station have unearthed neolithic brick habitations from around 6000 BC.

Vézère valley, Dordogne – there are 147 prehistoric sites in the valley and some twenty-five caves containing drawings. The sites have been found to contain skeletons of the Cro-Magnons and their hunted prey, some 800+ utensils and 500,000 flints.

Lascaux – this was discovered in 1940 by four young lads who followed their dog, Robot, into the cave. It has been called the ‘Sistine Chapel of Prehistory’.

It contained some 1,500 engravings and 600 drawings of hunting scenes – deer, horses, mammoth. They used strong colours and there is artistic merit in their depictions. It is a large cave and the artefacts were well preserved. The images are of bison, bulls, cats, deer, horses, ibex, rhino – and even mythical creatures like a unicorn!

It also contained the depiction of a man standing firm against a charging bison, though this is less well reproduced than those of the animals. There are also a series of mysterious symbols.

It was also remarkable for the fossilized remains of the animals they killed, plus footprints of both humans and animals.

It was opened to the public in 1948 and millions flocked to the cave, the carbon dioxide from their breathing and the lights they used started to fade the images. As a result it was closed to the public in 1963 to preserve these vital finds.

An artist, Monique Peytral, documented and produced copies of the images for over a decade and these are presented at Montignac as a replica called Lascaux II in the 1983; it is ingenerously referred to as ‘Faux Lascaux’.

Rouffignac – this cave had been home to a small group some 12,000 years ago. They painted images of horses, ibex, mammoth, woolly rhino. 19th century visitors defaced the cave with graffiti but these have been removed so that an electric train can take tourists to the site of the ceiling.

Font-de-Gaume – still permits small groups of visitors to se its drawings, of particular note are detailed drawings of reindeer.

Abri de Cap Blanc – this cave contains a bas-relief depicting horses. A young female skeleton was discovered beneath the main horse image, though established wisdom suggests she may have been one of the artists rather than a human sacrifice. It has occupation levels that go back 40,000 years.

The cave also contained a 45 cm (1’ 6”) bas-relief figure of a naked woman painted with red ochre and etched into a limestone block. The ‘Venus de Laussel’ holds a cornucopia with thirteen grooves suggesting a lunar or menstrual significance. Discovered in 1911 it has been assessed as 25,000 years old and is on display at the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux.

Abri de la Madeleine [More]

Chauvet – in the Ardèche three cavers discovered this cave in 1994, it was named for one of them. The cave sits above the previous course of the Ardèche river. It appears to have been occupied in two distinct periods 32,000 to 30,000 years ago and again 27,000 to 25,000 years ago.

Its cave drawings are said to be some of the oldest in the world from the earlier period of occupation, the images include depictions of bear, horse, hyena, ibex, lion, mammoth, owl, panther, woolly rhino and stags. They include a pair of rhino head butting.

The drawings were made on walls that had unusually been scraped clean of debris and deposits. The artist appears to have etched around the drawings to give perspective and techniques to attempt to suggest motion.

One of the more bizarre images is of a pair of incomplete legs and a vulva, leading to it being termed as a ‘Venus’ drawing. But it also has the head of a bull above it, this has led to it being described as a Minotaur.

There are hand prints and hand stencils plus a series of symbols and dots. A bear skull was found on an altar-like stone.

The cave also has the footprints of bears and of a small child. The cave was blocked by a roof fall 29,000 years ago until its rediscovery in 1994. No public access has been permitted, though a replica (like that at Lascaux) is planned.

Other important examples of prehistoric art are found at the Niaux cave (Ariege), the small Grotte du Vallonnet near Roquebrune-Cap-Martin

Neolithic man came later as Homo sapiens sapiens left their caves and built shelters of wood and stone, grew crops and kept animals. Brittany is a particular focus for traces of Neolithic settlements, Carnac perhaps the most important such site. They lived in France from 4,000 to 2,500 years ago. That more recent date places them as recent as 100 generations ago!

Carnac – lakes Chalain and Clairvaux in the Jura region (under water) – Morbihan, in Brittany, is the best place in France to see neolithic remains such as megaliths and standing stones. Places to visit in the region include Carnac, nearby Locmariaquer and Kerzerho, the island of Gavrinis and Petit-Mont d’Arzon, several sites around Erdeven, the Cairn de Barnenez (near Plouezoc’h), and the Champ Dolent Menhir in Dol-de-Bretagne, Other important megalithic structures in France include the carved figures at Filitosa in Corsica and the dolmen at Le Pouget (Languedoc).

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Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014