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Roc de Marsal is known by paleoanthropologists around the world for being the last site to have revealed a Neanderthal child burial site during the excavations carried out by Jean Lafille (1953-1971). Using criminal police methods, a baffling reconstruction was made from the bones of this 3 to 5 year old child (on view at the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies). New excavations in 2004 revealed a pit very close to the one in which this burial ground was found. It is thus of utmost interest to researchers. Dr. Dennis Sandgathe, a prehistorian from Canada (University of Simon Fraser at Burnaby, British Columbia) proposes three principal hypotheses: “This could be either a geological phenomenon, or the result of human activity: a cache to preserve meat or a burial ground.” The suspense is thus at a climax for the researchers. The pit will reveal its secret only after very meticulous excavation and study, which will continue next summer.


The joint American and French research crews who have been excavating at le Roc de Marsal near the village of Campagne for two years announced, at a lecture at l’Abri Pataud on 2 August 2005, what they have “gleaned” so far. Alain Turq, curator of the National Museum of Prehistory, began by determining the time period in which this site was in use : the Mousterian era, between 70,000 and 35,000 BP, in the Middle Palaeolithic, which owes its name to a village in Dordogne, Le Moustier, where excavation work carried out from 1850 to 1860 revealed a large number of artefacts made from chipped stone and flint, mainly scrapers and pointed tools and weapons.


One of the most important discoveries made at Roc de Marsal was what the objects were actually used for. Alain Turq pointed out that a flint, carried around in a man’s “musette” (toolkit), would go through several changes in several different locations in its lifetime, gradually getting smaller and smaller as it was resharpened. Serge Maury, head of the Dordogne Archaeology Department, explained that a bifacial flint could easily end up again being just a blank. It’s a sort of permanent recycling of objects ; what palaeontologists call “buissonnement”, which shows the quick-wittedness of their creators, clever enough to make new objects out of old by continually refining them. Actively involved in this series of excavations, the American researcher Harold Dibble, lecturer in anthropology at Pennsylvania University in Philadelphia, admitted that he had been literally stunned by the speed at which Neanderthal man was able to adapt : “From this point of view it may even be said that they were more intelligent than us, since we ourselves are bogged down in rules and regulations and not half as free and able to adjust to new situations.”


And another amazing fact: basically speaking, Neanderthal man made do with what he had “on his doorstep”, wherever he happened to be - flint in Dordogne, quartz in the Causses, even though the latter is harder to reduce. He didn’t go to the other end of the earth to drill for oil; he didn’t pump it through pipelines and turn it into milk bottles, cars or bicycle pumps. Neanderthal man knew instinctively what ecology was all about long before the word ever existed. He lived in perfect harmony with the world around him; everything he required was there within his reach; he never took more than he needed and the ecosystems and the climate had nothing to fear ! No radioactive waste forever after in his garbage… for, as Harold Dibble reminded us, in the caves and rock shelters, the things we are digging up, in order get some idea of the life he lived, are precisely the garbage he left !


And so back we came to the big language debate. Lithic reduction on such a massive scale and of such a sophisticated nature in the Mousterian era would suggest that this skill was not passed on solely by gestures; it is quite conceivable that verbal communication was used. Harold Dibble does not go along with this theory: “Language implies the use of symbols and no sign of such symbols has been found in the Middle Palaeolithic. You must be very careful not to confuse potential aptitude and factual evidence. The Aurignacians might have played the piano but no-one’s found the piano yet !” And that’s what’s so magical about studying this discipline: prehistory, although it tickles our fancy, remains a mystery and… unpredictable.


So, in their garbage we find leftovers which inform us of the fauna living in one particular area at one particular time. Madame Marylène Patou-Mathis, archaeozoologist at the National Museum of Natural History, drew our attention to the predominance of herds of reindeer and bisons but also evoked the presence of cave-dwelling hyenas, foxes, wolves and the odd mustelidae, in a wide open, steppe-like space.

Harold Dibble ended his talk in his own inimitable and humorous manner : “We call them cavemen but, when you come to think of it, we are the real “cavemen”. Our Palaeolithic ancestors were fresh-air fiends… and we”re not !” Let’s face it - it’s a hard job to get modern-age man to come out of his den. Unless… like this research crew…. he’s mad on digging !


Les fouilles actuelles sont financées par EarthWatch, Leakey Fondation, l’Université de Pennsylvanie, le Service Régional de l’Archéologie, le Conseil Général de la Dordogne, le Musée National de la Préhistoire et le Musée de l’Abri Pataud.

Nous remercions Alain Turq, conservateur au Musée National de Préhistoire des Eyzies de Tayac ainsi que l'ensemble des chercheurs américains en charge des fouilles au Roc de Marsal à Campagne : Harold Dibble, Dennis Sandgathe, Shannon Mac Pherron et Paul Goldberg. Nous remercions également Magen O'Farrell pour la traduction de l'article en anglais.

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