Reconsidering the middle to upper Paleolithic transition in S/W-France: The case of the Châtelperronian

 Châtelperronian Points from the Pas-Estret site (Beune) near Les Eyzies excavated during a couple of days by Dr. Ampoullanges in 1911. Unfortunately many important stratigraphies (Le Mouster, Combe Capelle, Laussel) were “excavated” in this manner.

Consider a hypothetical scenario: In fall of the year 40341 BC a group of Neanderthals enter a rockshelter with wet, rocky and sandy bottom. Water is dripping from the ceiling. There is a small stream in the front of the abri. The group stops for a day and introduces some raw material for the production of discoid cores. They prepare some sharp flakes for cutting meat and produce some ad-hoc denticulates and scrapers. They roast their prey on a small fire. On the next day these people abandon the rockshelter and never return again. Hyenas gnaw on the remains of the meal. During several springs the stream repeatedly passes over its banks and floods the cave. Wind-blown fine Loess enters the shelter.

In the winter of 40122 BC another group of people with a fully-fledged Upper Paleolithic technology enters the shelter again. They clean the place, and make fire, trampling on the ground and prepare their prey and renovate their hunting equipment. They leaf some blades and retouched artifacts. Cryoturbation is altering the soil and displaces the remains of the primary and secondary stay.

It is easy to consider that an archaeologist in 2012 will find a single stratum with a” transitional industry”. Only in the lab, if ever, she or he will recognize that two different visits could have taken place 42000 years before.

The current paradigm favors a gradual succession of the type MTA A → MTA-B → Archaic “Castelperronian” → Châtelperronian in S/W France, where the archaic “Castelperronian” shows characteristics of both a middle Paleolithic and Leptolithic industry. The existence of several evolutionary phases in the Châtelperronian lithic technologies was originally proposed by Lévêque (1987). The oldest stage should be characterized by numerous side-scrapers, denticulates and a few bifaces associated with burins, end-scrapers on blades and backed pieces. During later stages a full Leptolithic industry should be present. This hypothesis was based on old excavations and collections and did not take into account the role of taphonomic factors.

The refittings and spatial analyses of old collections and renewed excavations show that the “transitional” aspect of the Châtelperronian industry is almost certainly the result of post-depositional disturbances.

Middle Palaeolithic technological components are absent or rarely found in the lithic series of Canaule, and other Châtelperronian open-air sites, such as Tambourets, la Cote, Grotte des Cottés, at the Grotte du Loup and in Labeko Koba level IX. The first results of a technological study of the Grande Roche at Quinçay sequence show that the lithic production associated with level Egc (Archaic Castelperronian) must be assigned, in fact, to the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition and that levels Egf to Ejo both yielding homogenous Châtelperronian blade blanks for backed point production throughout are technologically fully upper Paleolithic. At another key-site, Saint-Césaire, the Ejop layer (Achaic Castelperronian ) contained two different sublayers, a Mousterian one Ejop INF, and a Chatelperronian one, Ejop SUP.

At the Bordes-Fitte rockshelter in Central France the archaeostratigraphic succession includes Châtelperronian artefacts, inter-stratified between Middle Palaeolithic and Aurignacian occupations. Refitting and spatial analysis by T. Aubry and coworkers revealed that the Châtelperronian point production and flake blanks retouched into denticulates, all recovered in the same stratigraphic unit, result from distinct and successive occupations and are not a ‘transitional’ assemblage. Therefore modern analysis of key-sites can not substantiate the hypothesis, that the Châtelperronian was a “transitional” industry

During the first half of the last century, the Châtelperronian was widely attributed to anatomically modern humans (AMH), based on the stratigraphical attribution of the Combe-Capelle burial by the notorious Otto Hauser (Hauser 1910). “Combe Chapelle Man” became an icon during these early days of prehistoric research and was sold by Hauser to the Berlin-Museum. In the chauvinistic atmosphere before WWI, this was the worst he could do in the eyes of French archaeologists. The skeleton survived WWII, but was suggested to have been lost during the Bombing raids of 1944/45. In 1990, the Combe-Capelle remains were rediscovered by A. Hoffmann and D. Wegner at the Museum für Vor und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Recently, the remains of this skeleton were directly dated by C-14 AMS to the Mesolithic (Hoffmann et al., 2011).

Later the discovery of the Saint-Césaire Neanderthal human remains in a stratigraphical unit yielding Châtelperronian artifacts and the attribution of the teeth found in levels XeVIII of the Grotte du Renne at Arcy-sur-Cure to Neanderthals, led most of the researchers to the conclusion, that Neanderthals were the makers of for the Châtelperronian, but there remained some doubt (Bar-Yosef and Bordes 2010, Bailey et al.2009). Ironically a maxillary incisor recovered at the top of GFU D at the Bordes- Fitte rockshelter, bearing most of the Châtelperronian component but immediately overlain by an Aurignacian, seems to belong to an AMH. It should be taken into account that Neanderthals and AMH could be the makers of the Châtelperronian. Why should a technocomplex be invariable related to just one hominide? Think on the Levallois-Mousterian in the Levant……  

Suggested Reading (unfortunately I have no access to the paper-maybe someone can help?):

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One Response to Reconsidering the middle to upper Paleolithic transition in S/W-France: The case of the Châtelperronian

  1. imix says:

    Dear aggsbach, today an article was published in PNAS that argues for Neanderthal origins (open access):

    From the abstract: “Here, we report a series of accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dates on ultrafiltered bone collagen extracted from 40 well-preserved bone fragments from the late Mousterian, CP, and Protoaurignacian layers at the Grotte du Renne site (at Arcy-sur-Cure, France). Our radiocarbon results are inconsistent with the admixture hypothesis. Further, we report a direct date on the Neandertal CP skeleton from Saint-Césaire (France). This date corroborates the assignment of CP assemblages to the latest Neandertals of western Europe.”

    Though one should note that this paper is part of an ongoing scientific controversy about the site. And the spread of dates is absolutely not inconsistent with the hypothetical scenario developed in the blog post above, even though the authors dismiss it. Generally, there seems to be a deep-rooted belief that there is a clear MP – UP succession, rather than (as in the scenario above) a fluid, archeologically difficult to document, perhaps temporarily at times sparse interlinkage of cultures during a long period of time through small groups travelling far distances. Why should that not have been the case? Then the dating does not prove a lot. Good to have, of course!

    Your site is an immense inspiration for me – I read it all the time. Many of your lines of thought are very close to what I tend to think, though with so much less knowledge than you have. I’d have thoughts and comments about so many posts, but since I lack by far your clarity of thought and breadth of knowledge of the literature I bascially always, in the end, refrain from posting. Not out of initimidation, but because too much gut-based speculation only goes so far, obviously, if it is not backed up with literature-based arguments. So let me say: thank you! I am extremely grateful that you are producing and providing this collection of where we stand regarding lithic artifacts in Europe/Africa/the Near East.

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