MYSTERIOUS PIT : BURIAL GROUND OR NEANDERTHAL MEAT SAFE ?
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.
SILEX SKILFULLY RECYCLED
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.”
STONE AGE « GREENS »
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 !
THE AURIGNACIANS MIGHT HAVE PLAYED THE PIANO, BUT NO-ONE’S FOUND THE PIANO YET
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.
ON THE MENU : ROAST REINDEER AND CAVE-DWELLING HYENA
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.