The Paleolithic site of Solutré and the escarpment which protects it from the northwest winds are located a few miles west of the modern city of Mâcon, at the southern Gate of Burgundy. Here the roads from the Paris Basin to the north, Belgium to the north-east, and Germany to the east, conjoin before entering the Saône-Rhône corridor toward the Mediterranean. Five limestone ridges or cuestas separate the granitic uplands of the Monts du Mâconnais to the west from the alluvial plain of the Saône River to the east. They are from north to south, Monsard, Montagne de St.-Claude (4), Roche de Vergisson (3), Roche de Solutré (2) and Mont Pouilly (1). Small valleys separate the cliffs and natural roads between plain and plateau.
The main archaeological site is known as Le Cros du Charnier and covers an area of more than one hectare, on the south-east side of the Roche de Solutré. But, Paleolithic remains extend well beyond the limits of the main site. Artifacts were found within and around the modern village and the vineyards of Solutré-Pouilly immediately below the Cros. In prehistoric times, it is likely that game herds followed the ravine that separates the Roche of Solutré from the Mont Pouilly in their seasonal migrations between the alluvial Plain and the Uplands. The arched shape of the southern flank of the Roche would then have formed a natural trap where Paleolithic hunters could capture their prey.
Local people had long been aware of the mass of horse bones (horse magma) above the village, some of it had been exploited and used as fertilizer before the Cros du Charnier was identified as a Paleolithic site. Archaeological investigation began in the mid-1800s and continued intermittently until 1998. Adrien Arcelin was the first who recognized the importance and archaeological potential of the site. Arcelin and his colleague H. de Ferry began excavations at the foot of the rock, which started in 1866. Some years later, Mortillet (1869) based his definition of the Solutrean phase of the Upper Paleolithic on the well made Solutrean laurel leafed points recovered from the site’s deposits. Subsequently Solutré underwent numerous excavations during the late 19th and through the early 20th century. Excavations largely done by amateurs to procure collections of “laurel leaf” points continued until 1926 and contributed to the destruction of large sectors of the site. Breuil clarified the sequence of archaeological layers represented at Solutré. He attributed the horse magma to the Gravettian (“Aurignacien sup.”) and demonstrated that it preceded the layers containing laurel leaf points. He also noted that the Solutreans were reindeer hunters. The Solutrean, in turn, was under the more recent Magdalenian layer which contained an abundance of horse bones. Controlled investigations using modern excavation techniques did not take place until the 1960s and continued periodically through the 1990s.
The geomophological, radiometrical and contextual data support a model of transient human excursions and ambush hunting not far from the glacial ice margins confined to Interstadial conditions:
- Final Mousterian: dated to 56 k.a. BP.
- Aurignacien (lower zone :during the Les Cotes Interstadial at 35 k.a. BP; upper zone: during the Arcy Interstadial ca. 30 k.a. BP)
- Gravettian (Gravette points and Font-Robert points are present. Mass killing of horses during the Maisières Interstadial ca. 28 k.a. BP and the Tursac Interstadial ca. ca. 24 k.a. BP)
- Solutrian (20 -17 k.a. BP; during the Laugerie and/or Lascaux Interstadial)
- Middle Magdalenian (horse-hunters in marginal zones of the site; immediately before and during the early Bölling Interstadial at 14,3 k.a. BP)
- Final Magdalenian
The massive accumulation of horse bones under the escarpment, unique in the European archaeological record, intrigued both archaeologists and the general public. Inspired by reports of bison kills in North America, Adrien Arcelin proposed in a novel, an interpretation which attracted a great deal of attention. In this popular narrative, Paleolithic hunters chased horse herds up to the top of the escarpment and forced them to jump to their death.
More recent investigations showed, however, that the masses of horse bones were not under the cliff as could be expected but were in face on the side and too far to fit the model. More convincing, the bones show little if any sign of the multiple fractures which would be there if horses had indeed jumped or fallen from the high cliff. A currently accepted view proposes that hunters intercepted animal herds as they moved through the Solutré valley during their seasonal transhumance from the Alluvial Plain of the Saône to the Macônnais Uplands. In this model, the hunters forced their prey into natural rock traps along the southern flank of the Roche just under the falt line where they could be slaughtered.
Solutré in 1999: