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It was as if all the summer sunshine in the Périgord were concentrated on the new excavations going on at La Ferrassie, the prehistoric site situated in Savignac-de-Miremont. As soon as work was finished the autumn rain (more than welcome after the spring drought) bucketed down and temperatures dropped, making all the campers shiver with cold. But between June 20 and July 12 2011 warmth and high spirits prevailed in this extremely promising sector.


After investigations using archive photos and documents, carried out by anthropologist Diane Laville, to redetermine the placement of the seven Neanderthal skeletons found there last century, the multi-disciplinary scientific team led by Alain Turq, Harold Dibble, Dennis Sandgathe, Paul Goldberg and Shannon Mac Pherron, had gathered that part of the site related to two of the skeletons had probably remained intact. Exploration in June 2011 was to confirm this hypothesis. The previous year dosimeters had been positioned in the ground by Norbert Mercier and Guillaume Guérin to measure the natural ambient radioactivity. So the first task in 2011 was to collect them up. Estimating the dose received will soon enable researchers to work out the exact age of the human fossils. For this, at nightfall, quartz particles were taken from whole blocks of sediment. The principle: since the time they were buried (corresponding to the time the bodies themselves were interred) these rock particles have accumulated a large number of gamma rays which, divided by the annual dose recorded by the dosimeter, will reveal just how many thousands of years they have been belowground. When these quartz particles are exposed to light the energy they have stored escapes. The procedure is therefore followed in the dark, in a laboratory, in a place where the radiation can be monitored. Other dating methodologies are used to compare results and we shall ultimately be able to ascertain the time in history when the Neanderthal man, the woman and the five children, found in their resting places, actually lived at La Ferrassie.


At the same time the prehistorians are working to determine how the deposits settled - to form, layer upon layer, the sedimentary strata which, on this particular site, represent from top to bottom - exactly as our “explorers” had imagined – the great cultures of our prehistoric past named after the places where they were first observed: Aurignacian, Châtelperronian, La Ferrassie-type Mousterian and traditional Acheulean Mousterian. These appellations, their respective ages and their cultural content are of course central to this series of excavations. The first collections of flint tools and animal bones unearthed raised questions which will call for more progressive ways of thinking in the next few years. The study of the fine blades, made by geologist Paul Goldberg by meticulously dipping compact blocks of sediment into resin, will at the same time give insight into the exact nature of the soils and their formation as life on Earth went on. All this will eventually give us a good picture of certain aspects of life here in the far distant past. By analogy, before dating methodologies, the small population at La Ferrassie was put into the classic Neanderthal category (50,000 years). As we approach 2012, we are on the verge of knowing if the groups of human beings who left some of their dead at La Ferrassie did not in fact live there well before - and in an environment totally different from the one we imagined. More to come…

Sophie Cattoire

Translated into English by Valerie Saraben

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