Anthropology 315: Modern Human Origins
Each summer since 2001, with the exception of 2008, a joint team from the Université de Bordeaux 1 and Princeton University have been excavating the prehistoric site of les Pradelles, a collapsed cave rich in archaeological remains. The human occupation, between 45 and 83,000 years BP, was in the middle of the last glacial advance when Neandertals occupied Europe. The site was a hunting camp where animals were brought back to be butchered, with the meatier parts being carried off to a living area that has now been lost. The group from Princeton is made up of undergraduates enrolled in Anthropology 315, Modern Human Origins, a six week program of intensive class and laboratory work involving training in the scientific methods of prehistoric archaeology. Students learn all aspects of excavation, analysis and identification. We are fortunate in being able to train our students at Les Pradelles, which is one of the very few sites currently being excavated in Europe from which Neandertal fossil bones have been recovered.
Thus far, the fragmentary remains of more than eight Neandertals have been found, including several youngsters. One of the more interesting aspects of the Neandertal fossils is that many of the teeth show signs of having been swallowed, partially digested and then regurgitated, almost certainly by cave hyenas, a large, now extinct species that inhabited glacial Europe. How, and under what circumstances the hyenas were able to consume humans is still being explored. This is the first time evidence that hyenas were utilizing humans for food has been documented in prehistoric Europe.
Many of the Neandertal bones show the deep marks left by sharp-edged stone tools, evidence of some sort of butchery, but whether it was for consumption or for some ritual purpose we have yet to discover. In addition to the Neandertal bones, we have recovered more than 14,000 animal bones, mainly from reindeer and horse, but also from cave hyena, perhaps cave lion and many small mammals and other vertebrates. Interestingly, the butchery marks on the animal bones closely match those on the Neandertals. Today, reindeer (known in North America as caribou) are only found more 1500 miles to the north in Scandinavia. During the last glacial, they were a common part of the fauna in this part of France.
In addition to the animal and human bones, hundreds of stone tools have also been found. They have been fashioned to a deliberate pattern, similar to tools that have been found all over Europe and indeed, as far south as the tip of southern Africa and as far east as South Asia. Known as the Mousterian tool complex, most are skillfully made and very sharp; they make quite excellent butchery tools. What is intriguing about the Les Pradelles tools is that many of them were made from raw materials that derive from deposits more than 50 km away from the site. What makes this of special interest is that the Neandertals were well aware of the differing qualities of the raw materials. At Les Pradelles, there are many nodules of local flint just lying around, and while this stone was sometimes used for tools, it flakes very poorly and it is difficult to produce a sharp edge. Flint from far away sources is far superior and the Neandertals brought chunks of this back to the site to fashion into tools. They were careful with this material, using the tools and resharpening them until there was barely anything left. In contrast, tools made from the local flint were used only a little before being discarded.
This level of detail about the occupation of the site and the use of local resources has been achieved through the research of a large number of interdisciplinary scholars who have used their expertise in this reconstruction. Geologists, sedimentologists, geochemists, paleontologists, zoologists, archaeologists, physical anthropologists, paleogeneticists and other specialists have all contributed to this task.