Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Newsflash: Neanderthals could build stuff

The Mousterian site of La Folie, which is located just north of Poitiers (France), is the subject of an extremely well-done website (in French, unfortunately with no English translation). The site is dated by TL to about 57.7 +/- 2.4 kya and had thus far been the subject of a few preliminary reports that emphasized its contextual integrity and the identification of activity areas within it (Bourguignon et al. 2002, 2006). One of the key aspects of the site is that a number of approaches were combined to confidently establish the existence of regularly spaced postholes around its periphery (indicating the existence of a relatively large man-made structure) and discrete activity areas within the area circumscribed by this structure (slightly under 250 squared meters, over a thickness of about 10 cm). The absence of evidence for a central or transversal posts that would have been needed to support a roof suggests that the structure was a large (i.e., ca. 10m in diameter) windbreak rather than a tent or hut. The postholes were surrounded by limestone blocks used to anchor the wooden posts used in the structure, traces of which have clearly been identified through micromorphological analysis in at least one of the holes. Likewise, micromorphology identified a large area along one side of the structure that was devoid of archaeological remains, save for decomposed plant materials, which suggest that it represents a bedding area.

Use-wear and technological analyses show that the lithic industry used at the site is characteristic of the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition, and that it included a Levallois production strategy aimed at producing sharp flakes used to work a variety of materials (e.g., wood, skin, soft plant material). A few of these blanks were retouched to produce, among other things, retouched backed knives, but most of the lithics appear to have been produced and used relatively expediently. The investigators argue that the site served as a task site likely used in food procurement, although there are only scant details about this interpretation provided on the website.

All in all, this is a very eloquent presentation of the results of this excavation and it demonstrates how relatively dry archaeological data can be presented in an engaging way to the public at large. On a more technical level, as had already been documented at the Middle Paleolithic site of Tor Faraj in Jordan (Henry et al. 2004), this confirms that Neanderthals were able to partition and clearly organize their living space, in contrast to claims that "well organized sites" only appear in the Upper Paleolithic.


Bourguignon, L., Sellami, F., Deloze, V., Sellier-Segard, N., Beyries, S., Emery-Barbier, E. 2002. L’habitat moustérien de « La Folie » (Poitiers, Vienne) : synthèse des premiers résultats. Paléo 14:29-48.

Bourguignon, L., Vieillevigne, E., Guibert, P., Bechtel, F., Beyries, S., Émery-Bariber, A., Deloze, V., Delahaye, C., Sellami, F., Sellier-Segard, N. 2006. Compléments d’informations chronologiques sur le campement moustérien de tradition acheuléenne du gisement de la Folie (Poitiers, Vienne). Paléo 18:37-44.

Henry, D. O., H. J. Hietala, A. M. Rosen, Y. E. Demidenko, V. I. Usik and T. L. Armagan. 2004. Human Behavioral Organization in the Middle Paleolithic: Were Neanderthals Different? American Anthropologist 106:17-31.


Tim said...

Nice article, thanks Julien - hope you don't mind, but I've quoted your whole post - best, Tim

Becky Wragg Sykes said...

Hi Julien,
Great to see a blog from someone working as a Palaeolithic researcher! I'm in the UK, in the final year of my thesis on Mousterian lithics.
It's so nice to see finally that what we have been lacking for the Mousterian are high-resolution datasets, that are well excavated. Think what we might be saying (or not saying) about the Lower Palaeolithic without sites like Boxgrove and others.
Abric Romani is also really excellent as the cave equivalent of La Folie, with very fine stratigraphy and good spatial data.
Did you see the INRAP site of St-Amand-les-Eaux, hopefully that will be as good as La Folie when it's published.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Hi Becky,
thanks for reading and for your comments, they're much appreciated! I'm not aware of St-Amand-les-Eaux, so I'd be really grateful if you could send me a link to it.

I agree that what we've been missing, in part, are high-res data sets for the Mousterian, though more and more of those have been 'coming out' (so to speak) in recent years. These are doing a wonderful job of doing away with major preconceptions researchers have ad about Neanderthal behavior.

Good luck finishing the thesis!! What specific aspects of Mousterian lithics are you looking at?

becky wragg sykes said...

Hi Julien,
Here's the link to the other site.

My research is on looking at how Neanderthals were using the landscape in the UK through looking at the lithics. Its all MIS 3, various raw materials. I'm trying to do a chaine operatoire approach, and get a social perspective in there too... aren't we all!?
I am trying to use the possibilities suggested by high quality sites like La Folie and Lynford in England as a framework to be more creative in thinking about my other sites and what was going on in between them.
Hoping to submit by next september- fingers crossed!

becky wragg sykes said...

ok the link got chopped off! If you go to the Inrap homepage, its in a link on the left hand side. There is a pdf you can download.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Hi, Becky!
Many thanks for the link - St. Armand-les-Eaux sounds and looks like a fascinating site!

Good luck with your research, sounds like a good project. What aspects of CO reconstructing are you focusing on to reconstruct land-use? I've done a quite a bit on reconstructing land-use patterns from lithics in MP and EUP Italy (albeit not using a CO approach per se), so I'm partial to projects addressing similar problems. It'll definitely be interesting to see what these behaviors look like in the UK. Keep us posted!

BeckyWraggSykes said...

Only just saw your reponse!

I am attempting to use CO to gain an impression of what was coming in and out of sites, and what things people seem especially interested in doing where. Raw materials approach is trying to get away from the star-burst site centred method which I think is flawed, and instead use a source-centred approach to broadly look at movements through the landscape.