The role of a French Palaeolithic site in the story of human evolution
Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.
The science of human origins is younger than photography. The first Neanderthal skull was discovered in Engis, in present Belgium in 1829, and barely registered by scholars.
At that time young Charles Darwin was studying theology at the University of Cambridge. In preparation for his major exams he absorbed William Paley's work Evidences of Christianity. In this book Paley presented a strong argument for purposeful creation. It was an interesting start for the future scholar who will tirelessly argue that mutation that provides material for natural selection is entirely random – a bit like a ‘blind watchmaker.’
The ‘type specimen’ from which the pre-modern humans received their name was unearthed in Neanderthal Valley, near Mettmann in Germany in 1856. But the best preserved remains were excavated in the early 20th century by French pioneer archaeologists Denis Peyrony and Louis Capitan at La Ferrassie. This rock shelter, located in the Vézère Valley in the Dordogne Department, shows evidence for both Neanderthal and Early Modern Human occupation between 22,000 and 77,000 years ago.
Modern Humans arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago and are usually credited with advancements reflected in Aurignacian culture, including more refined tools and the first examples of visual art. Neanderthal people, on the other hand, had and continue to have a bad reputation as primitive and brutish. Yet both human forms continued to live side by side for several millennia and likely shared similar technologies and life strategies which we call culture. Perhaps the Neanderthal represents mostly an adaptation to cold environment in ‘Ice-age’ Europe and western Asia at that time.
Among a handful of stone artefacts from La Ferrassie that Professor Shellshear donated to the Australian Museum in the 1930s is a piece associated with middle Aurignacian and probably nearly 40,000 years old. It was likely brought to the site as a piece of flint, crafted by flaking into a chisel or a scraper and then possibly used in woodwork. We will never know whether its maker was a modern or a Neanderthal person.
It is instructive to reflect that at about the same time, some 40,000 year ago, fully modern humans from Southeast Asia found their way across the ocean and populated New Guinea and Australia – then one landmass called Sahul. Like their European cousins thay ventured also to cooler regions, but in contrast settled the virgin land, never touched by a human foot before.
Prepared by Charlotte Kowalski and Stan Florek