I am currently involved in two field projects located in France, which are my major non-preventive archaeology field projects. I am also involved in many other preventive archaeology projects in central France.
I am the principal investigator at Les Cottés, and I recently finished the first stage of an excavation program at Pech-de-l’Azé I. Also, in collaboration with J. Jaubert, J.-J. Hublin and S. McPherron, we recently finished four years of excavation at Jonzac.
Les Cottés Excavations:
Pech-de-l’Azé I is part of a complex of Middle and Lower Palaeolithic sites located on a tributary to the Dordogne valley in south-west of France. Discovered in the 19th century, it had been excavated by D. Peyrony, R. Vaufrey, and F. Bordes. The remains of a Neandertal child had been found at the site (see Maureille et Soressi, 2000 ; Soressi et al., 2007) as well as an exceptional collection of Mousterian pigments (Soressi et al., 2002; d’Errico and Soressi, 2002, 2006; Soressi and d'Errico, 2007).
Pech I is located at the entrance of a karstic tube, at the other extremity of which was found Pech-de-l’Aze II (containing “Acheuleen meridional” and middle Paleolithic deposits). Pech IV is located at the bottom of the same cliff, 80 meters away toward the East, and preserved Middle Paleolithic deposits recently excavated by H. Dibble and S. Mc Pherron. Pech-de-l’Azé I is one of the two type-sites for the Mousterian of Acheulian tradition. Only Mousterian of acheulian tradition (MTA) occupations were recognized by R. Vaufrey, F. Bordes and us: one complex of MTA type A occupations at the bottom (layer 4), and then several MTA type B occupations.
Our goal is to provide a detailed record and understanding of behavioral changes of the last Neandertals before any contact with anatomically modern humans. Pech I, located in a well known region, has the potential to provide a detailed framework which would be useful to better understand Neandertals demise.
In 1999, we undertook the curation (washing, labeling and organizing by layer) and the analysis of the unpublished material collected during the last excavation done in 1970-1971 by F. Bordes (14 942 coordinated remains). We also started limited excavation at the site in 2004 and 2005. The first results of our inter-disciplinary research focusing on site formation processes, zooarcheology, cémentochronologie, lithic and pigment technology, as well as on use-wear analysis are presented in Soressi et al. 2008
Artefacts, bones and ashes from fire-places had been preserved by numerous blocks fallen from the limestone walls and roof overhang in a clayish sand matrix transported in by run-off. In consequence, and probably also because of a very fast rate of sedimentation at the site, the archaeological remains and features had been quickly fossilized and preservation is good. The size of the shelter was considerably reduced from the first and to the last occupations. Pech I sequence is shorter than the one of Pech II, not because of a massive draining of Pech I as suggested by previous authors, but because of the speed of the backward movement of the shelter higher at Pech I than at Pech II. If they were older occupations at Pech I, they’ve been redeposited on the hillside. ESR, U/Th and AMS C14 measurements indicate than the site was occupied right before the arrival of anatomical modern humans in this area of Western Europe, around 45 to 40 000 years ago. Combustions features and possible in-situ fire places with a circular shape covering about 50 cm2 had been found in the MTA type A layer (layer 4) during 2004 excavation and are under analyses. Micromammals, fish and reptiles remains are well preserved; they were probably mostly accumulated by bird of prey. The density of micromammals remains is not correlated with the density of archaeological material and might be a testimony of longest occupations of the site by hominids at the bottom of the sequence. Preservation of larger bone is also good: less than 30% of the bones were affected by surface weathering, and less than 8% of them were rounded.
Large mammal remains are dominated by red deer, followed by bison and aurochs, suggesting a forested environment with open grassland during a temperate phase of IOS 3. They were clearly accumulated at the site by hominids as there is an almost complete absence of carnivore bones (except for one red fox tooth), and the number of bones showing carnivore damage is very low (less than 1%). Additionally, 30% of the bones show evidence of human activity (including cut-marks, burning, and percussion marks (several quartz and quartzite hammer suitable for bone breakage had been found), which is consistent with an anthropogenic assemblage that was undisturbed by carnivores before deposition. Skinning, dismembering, filleting ( ?) and marrow extraction (several hammer had been recovered) were done at the site in every layer. Cement analyses had been done on more than 70% of the NMI of large mammals recovered by Bordes and by us. Going up through the sequence, the season of hunting red-deer and bison got more and more precise: from all around the year in layer 4 to the end of good season only during layer 7. Most of bird bones were accumulated at the site by natural agencies, with the exception of two golden eagle phalanges which show evidence of cut-marks which produced the segmentation of the meat-free eagle finger. This is one of the very rare evidence of use of bird bone by Neandertals. Cut-marks were also found on a few beaver bones, behaviour barely documented until now for Neandertals. In 2004, a new Neandertal tooth belonging to another juvenile individual had been recovered.
The lithic industry is characterised by scrapers, denticulates, cordiform and triangular bifaces, backed knifes, and elongated blanks. The manufacture of the bifaces is highly standardized across time at the site and at other MTA sites, and is understood a testimony of a specific technical tradition flourishing in Périgord around 50 000 years ago. In the MTA type A layer 4, bifaces are numerous and are a testimony of the interest of these Neanderthals groups for stone-tools suitable for travel as these bifaces were multifunctional, resharpenable and flake producer tools, as evidenced by techno-functionnal and use-wear analysis. Pech I was used to manufacture stone-tools; a number of them certainly being exported out of the site.
Yet, even in a setting where raw material is abundant, lithic artefacts (and especially bifaces) had been imported at the site in layer 4. Stone-tools types are numerous in layer 4, and evidence of hafting are available for some of them. Also, an incredible collection of black pigments (more than 450), among which half of them show clear traces of use, were recovered in layer 4. The density of material is much lower in the upper layers 6 and 7 (MTA type B). Only small number of lithic had been imported at the site, and evidence of fragmentation and long-term planning of lithic production are scarce, as always recorded at other MTA type B sites. Bifaces are almost absent in these MTA type B assemblages, as well as evidence for hafting and evidence of use of pigments. Every available line of evidence, including cementochronology, is then pointing toward shorted occupation of the site during the deposition of the upper MTA type B layers, layer 6 and 7, and longer occupations of the site in layer 4. This is not surprising, considering that the size of the rock-shelter is strongly reducing from the bottom layer to the upper layer.
MTA type B had always been found in stratigraphy underneath MTA type A. At Pech I, climate does not seem to vary much from MTA type A to B, as fauna spectrum stays the same across the sequence. Available radiometric measurement do not allow to separate in time these two episodes. Technological analyses of other MTA sites had shown that this tendency to manufacture tool designed for travelling is strong only during the MTA type A. And, MTA type A assemblages show more evidence of long-term planning than MTA type B assemblages. Behavioural changes from MTA A to MTA B at Pech I might be related to changes in Neandertals mobility patterns, from a logistical pattern to one that is more residential in a smaller and smaller territory. Yet, change in the use of caves, the only type of setting taken into account here, might also have played a role; caves being used as base camps during the MTA type A and no more during the MTA type B. Yet, MTA type B open air assemblages are still to be discovered. The interdisciplinary analyses of Pech I is still on going. We hope to provide in the near future a detailed analysis from as many points of view as possible to provide precise understanding of the behaviour of some of the last Neandertals group right before the arrival of anatomical modern Humans in that area of Western Europe.