Discovering Saint-Cesaire

A reconstruction of the Neandertal found at Saint-Cesaire

A reconstruction of the Neandertal found at Saint-Cesaire

The fall semester is just around the corner, and I have a doozy ahead of me. My advisor warned me that it would be a tough semester and told me to come to her if I have trouble. That scared me a little. Even more so when I told some other grad students which classes I was planning to take and I got responses like, “All in the same semester?” and “Um, good luck with that.” Okay then. By the way, grad students who don’t maintain a B+ average are kicked out of the program. So no pressure or anything.

As I write this I am on one last summer trip to visit family with my daughter, and before I switch to school mode, I thought I’d write a final post about my paleotrip to France this summer. Namely why Saint-Cesaire? What makes it so interesting? And what are the questions we are hoping to answer by excavating at this site?

First some history. In 1976, in the little village of Saint-Cesaire in western France, an old rock quarry was being leveled with backhoes in order to convert it to mushroom caves. A local amateur (but very experienced) archeologist named Bernard Dubigny spotted human-made flint tools and animal bones in a backhoe shovel. He knew immediately that this meant it was an archeological site, likely a prehistoric one, and called the Service Regional D’Archeologie. Francois Leveque was head of the department at the time, and arrived on the scene to see for himself. He recognized its significance right away, and happily so did the mayor and the landowner. Work was stopped immediately and a ten-year excavation began. Wouldn’t it be nice if archeological sites were always discovered this way and everyone was always this cooperative?

In 1979 all the hard work paid off when the remains of an adult Neandertal were discovered. Bernard Vandermeersch, a paleoanthropologist, was called in for analysis. The skeleton was nicknamed Pierette by researchers because it was thought to be a woman based on its size. However, as I learned in my osteology class last semester, sex determination without a pelvis is mainly guesswork, and we’re talking about our own species, Homo sapiens. Therefore, even more so with Neandertals. So without DNA we can’t really know. Interestingly, the right half of Pierette was preserved, but not the left. More or less right down the middle. Geologists surmise that the body had somehow wound up lying on its right side, with the left side exposed and possibly washed away by an ancient stream.paleosite01

This brings us to what is interesting and challenging about Saint-Cesaire. Pierette was found underground in a layer that had previously been only associated with modern humans. Archeologists use stratigraphy to make determinations about a site, especially its date of occupation. Things pile up on the ground over time, decompose, and are covered up by new piles of dirt and organic material. This can bee seen as layers of differently colored dirt or different types of rocks. The differences in layers can be caused by geological changes: sudden ones like a volcano erupting, or more gradual ones like a river drying up or the climate changing. You have seen stratigraphy, even if you might not have given it much thought. The Grand Canyon is an obvious example, but you can see also see it in a hill that has been cut to make way for a highway.

In prehistoric archeology, scientists have named different eras for different types of tools. Experts in lithics (stone tools) look at how they are made and name them a particular “tradition” or technology that was shared by a group of people. When the way stone tools are made and used changes, it is given a new name. These different tool-making traditions are also sometimes the indicators used to date a layer, and by association whatever is found in that layer, such as human remains. You can see how this might become a problem if we have made incorrect assumptions about what populations were making which tools, or if one population shared their technology with another. Neandertals have been associated with Mousterian tools for quite some time. Modern humans in Europe (where Neandertals also lived) are associated with Chatelperronian and later, Aurignacian tools.

So with this in mind, let’s return to Saint-Cesaire. You can see my photos of the exposed stratigraphy here. DSCN3374When Pierette was found, “she” broke the rules. There is no doubt she is Neandertal, yet she was found on top of the cave or shelter that had collapsed in prehistoric times, but after Neandertal occupation (at least 40,000 years ago). She was found associated with Chatelperronian artifacts, which remember were supposed to be the earliest modern human tools. When this discovery was announced, it caused people to stop asking questions about geological factors. The matter was now thought to be closed. Instead they started asking questions like, “Why did the Neandertals change their behavior? Were they influenced by modern humans?” There’s that modern human superiority complex again. Did anyone think to ask whether modern humans were influenced by Neandertals? We tend to think modern humans were more “advanced,” and maybe we were in certain or even significant ways, I’m not ruling that out. But when asking these questions, it’s a mistake to start from that assumption.

Today, new teams of archeologists are returning to Saint-Cesaire with new questions: How were these layers – Mousterian, Chatelperronian and Aurignacian – deposited? Is what we see a perfect picture of human occupation? Or did geological factors complicate the layers? Freezing and thawing can move sediment, like a river flow. So a more close examination of the lithics, to see whether they are “fresh” or have been worn by water and movement, for example, is underway. Geologists with new technology and modern training and theories are looking at the site to improve our understanding of its formation.

So far, in addition to Pierette, two perinatals have been found. Perinatal means a baby just before, at, or shortly after birth. (Sadly, the study of human evolution comes with lots of dead children and babies. I’ll come back to this in a future post.) They were found in layers different from Pierette’s, so not necessarily associated with her. These babies have been found piecemeal by different teams in different years, which I’m sure will make writing papers about them complicated. During this year’s excavation the only Neandertal remains we found was the finger bone of one of these babies. But hey, Neandertal remains are hard to come by, so we celebrated nonetheless. And actually, we did not even dig up the bone this summer, it was found in a bag of two-milimeter sieved sediment from the previous year that had not yet been sorted (see earlier post). Isabelle, our fearless leader, pointed out as she served the wine that this was the pay-off for sorting, the most brain-numbingly boring work of the dig. Can’t argue with results!

This is a blog, not an academic paper, so you won’t find bibliographies and citations here. However, I always do my best to include links to my sources or examples of general concepts I have learned in my studies. This post is a little different. Because so few scientists have studied Pierette, and what little information about Saint-Cesaire’s history exists is in French, my main source is an interview graciously granted by the head of our excavation, the lovely and talented Dr. Isabelle Crevecoeur. Isabelle croppedShe is a researcher out of Bordeaux University with the CNRS, which she says is French for the National Center of Scientific Research and is similar to the American National Science Foundation. She has read, among other things, Leveque’s book Context of a Late Neandertal, available on Google Books. And guess what else? She happens to also be an experienced improvisor, something I have devoted 20+ years of my life to studying and performing. How cool is that? I told a comedy improv friend about this coincidence, and I said, holy cow, what are the chances, what does that even mean? She said, it means you would have some killer sets together. Duh. Isabelle, if you are reading this, you are officially invited to throw down with me. We’ll play in French and English and Gibberish. Can I get a suggestion of a hominin species and a lithic tool tradition, please?


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