Past Perfect: When the Reindeer-Hunters Came to Cro-Magnon
Edouard Lartet and his son Louis discover relics of human prehistory in the rock-shelters of Les Eyzies, France
Edouard Lartet (1801–1871), a French magistrate who retired from the practice of law when he was just 33 to devote himself to paleontology, is today known as “the father of prehistory.” Together with his English friend and financial backer, Henry Christy (who, like Lartet, was fascinated by Charles Darwin’s theories of human evolution), he explored the caves and rock shelters of southern France in search of the archaeological traces of prehistoric man. In numerous locations throughout the Pyrenees and Dordogne regions, the two men found ancient hand-held stone tools and exquisitely decorated bone antler fragments from long-extinct animals. (Modern techniques have dated the remains to around 30,000 B.C.) Between 1863 and 1871, Lartet and Christy explored the limestone cliffs of the Dordogne’s Vèzére River valley, and published the first of a series of monographs about their Stone Age discoveries, Reliquiae Acquitanicae. But Lartet was unsuccessful in recovering any prehistoric human remains; that feat was accomplished by his son Louis (1840–1899), a paleontologist and geologist by training, who visited the Vèzére village of Les Eyzies in 1868 just when a nearby railroad construction crew stumbled on some paleolithic artifacts in a shallow cave called Cro-Magnon. Amid stone blades and knives, pierced-shell pendants, and bison, mammoth and reindeer bone fragments, Louis Lartet uncovered the human remains of a pre-term infant and four adults, buried in a single grave. The “old man’s skull” described by Louis Lartet in the following account of his discovery has long-since been recognized as the anatomical prototype of modern European man.
[A rock shelter] covered by a talus 4 meters thick, has been found 880 meters northwest of the village of Les Eyzies, and 130 meters southeast of the Les Eyzies Railway-station, at a place called Cro-Magnon, and at the foot of a rock the upper part of which stands up detached, roughly resembling a great mushroom.
This newly discovered shelter would perhaps have remained for ever unknown if the construction of the railway-embankment close by had not occasioned the removal of a considerable portion of the talus, and of a gigantic block, detached from the neighboring rocks and measuring 311 cubic meters, and afterwards the pulling down of a projecting ledge of rock above the talus …
Towards the end of March, two contractors at Les Eyzies … took away still more of the talus, as material for a road near by; and, after having removed 4 meters of the debris covering the shelter, the workmen, digging further beneath the projecting ledge which they had thus exposed, soon came upon broken bones, worked flints, and lastly, human skulls, the antiquity and scientific importance of which the contractors immediately recognized. With prudence and good feeling, such as are unfortunately too often wanting, but which all lovers of paleoethnological studies will be glad to hear of, the contractors at once stopped the works … The Minister of Public Instruction sent me to Les Eyzies, where … I was soon able to proceed with a regular and systematic exhumation of the sepulture and its approaches.
First of all it was necessary to support the vault of the shelter or cave by a pillar; for a deep crack threatened its fall, or at least its giving way. In digging a hole for the base of this pillar, we were able to determine the succession of four black beds of ashes, one on another, the lowest of which contained the stump of the tusk of an elephant …
Although these layers seem to have reference to a period during which the cave was inhabited, if not continuously, at least at intervals so short as not to admit of intercalations of debris falling from the roof between the different hearth-layers which correspond with the successive phases of this (the third) period of habitation. The first (lowest) of these layers is full of charcoal, and has a thickness of 0.20 meters; it does not touch the back of the cave, but extends a little further than the earlier layers. At its line of contact with the calcareous debris beneath, the latter is strongly reddened by the action of fire …
Above this thick hearth-layer is a bed of yellowish earth, rather argillaceous, also containing bones, flints, and implements of bone, as well as amulets or pendants …
It was on the upper part of this yellow band, and at the back of the cave, that the human skeletons and the accessories of the sepulture were met with; and all of them were found in the calcareous debris, except in a small space in the furthest hollow at the back of the cave. This last deposit also contains some worked flints, mixed up with broken bones, and with some uninjured bones referable to small rodents and to a particular kind of fox.
Lastly, above these different layers, and all over the shelter itself, lay the rubbish of the talus (4 to 6 meters 038thick), sufficient in itself, according to what we have said above about its mode of formation, to carry back the date of the sepulture to a very distant period in the Prehistoric Age.
As for the human remains and the position they occupied in bed, the following are the result of my careful inquiries in the matter. At the back of the cave was found an old man’s skull, which alone was on a level with the surface, in the cavity not filled up in the back of the cave, and was therefore exposed to the calcareous drip from the roof, as is shown by its having a stalgmitic coating on some parts. The other human bones, referable to four other skeletons, were found around the first, within a radius of about 1.50 meters. Among these bones were found, on the left of the old man, the skeleton of a woman, whose skull presents in front a deep wound, made by a cutting instrument, but which did not kill her at once, as the bone has been partly repaired within; indeed physicians think that she survived several weeks. By the side of the woman’s skeleton was that of an infant which had not arrived at its full time of fetal development. The other skeletons seem to have been those of men.
Amidst the human remains lay a multitude of marine shells (about 300), each pierced with a hole, and nearly all belonging to the species Littorina littorea so common on our Atlantic coasts. Some other species, such as Purpura lapillus, Turritella communis, etc., occur, but in small numbers. These also are perforated, and, like the others, have been used for necklaces, bracelets, or other ornamental attire. Not far from the skeletons, I found a pendant or amulet of ivory, oval, flat, and pierced with two holes. There were also found near the skeletons several perforated teeth, a large block of gneiss, split and presenting a large smoothed surface, also worked antlers of reindeer, and chipped flints, of the same types as those found in the hearth-layers underneath.
To resume:—The presence, at all levels, of the same kind of flint scrapers … evidently shows them to be relics of the successive habitation of the Cro-Magnon shelter by the same race of nomadic hunters, who at first could use it merely as a rendezvous, where they came to share the spoils of the chase taken in the neighborhood; but coming again, they made a more permanent 039occupation, until their accumulated refuse and the debris gradually raised the floor of the cave, leaving the inconvenient height of only 1.20 meters between it and the roof; and then they abandoned it by degrees, returning once more at last to conceal their dead there. No longer accessible, except perhaps to the foxes above noticed, this shelter and its strange sepulture were slowly and completely hidden from sight by atmospheric degradation bringing down the earthy covering, which by its thickness alone, proves the great antiquity of the burial in the cave.
The presence of the remains of an enormous bear, of the mammoth, of the great cave-lion, of the reindeer, the spermophile, etc. in the hearth-beds strengthens in every way this estimation of their antiquity; and this can be rendered more rigorously still if we base our argument on the predominance of the horse here in comparison with the reindeer, on the form of the worked flints and of the bone arrow- and dart-heads, and on the above-mentioned indications of hunting, as well as on the absence of any engraving or carving. Hence we may refer this station of Cro-Magnon to the age immediately preceding that artistic period which saw in this country the first attempts of the engraver and the sculptor.
Whence came these ancient men of the Vezére? Here the geologist must be silent. His duty is to confirm the facts forming the subject of this introductory notice, as far as they belong to his domain. To the anthropologist we look to enlighten us on the characters of the race. It may, however, be remarked that the sea-shells associated with the sepulture at Cro-Magnon are in no wise of Mediterranean origin, but belong only to the Atlantic Ocean, and are notably common on the shores of La Charente [a region of western France near the Bay of Biscay]. This fact may be taken into consideration together with the circumstance of there being in this sepulture several pebbles of basalt, which could not have been taken from the valley of the Vezére, but might well have been brought from that of the Dordogne. Hence we are led to suppose that before coming to the Cave District, where they found conditions so favorable for their mode of life, the reindeer-hunters had sojourned on our Atlantic coasts, and that they arrived at the banks of the Vezére after having ascended the Valley of the Dordogne.
Edouard Lartet (1801–1871), a French magistrate who retired from the practice of law when he was just 33 to devote himself to paleontology, is today known as “the father of prehistory.” Together with his English friend and financial backer, Henry Christy (who, like Lartet, was fascinated by Charles Darwin’s theories of human evolution), he explored the caves and rock shelters of southern France in search of the archaeological traces of prehistoric man. In numerous locations throughout the Pyrenees and Dordogne regions, the two men found ancient hand-held stone tools and exquisitely decorated bone antler fragments from long-extinct animals. (Modern […]