The MTA of the Plateaux near the Middle Vézère Valley

The Middle Vézère valley in the Dordogne, south-western France, is a key area of world prehistory, well-known in palaeoanthropology for the high density of Paleolithic sites in caves and Rock shelters, amongst which are eponymous ones such as La Micoque, Le Moustier, La Madeleine and the abri of Cro-Magnon. 

The Vézère is entrenched in a deep valley with steep limestone cliffs. The gradual incision of the meandering river resulted in the formation of different terrace levels along its inner bends. Five different terraces, from top to bottom, Fv, Fw1, Fw2, Fx and Fy1, and the recent floodplain (Fz) have been distinguished . As shown, these terraces show clear differences in heavy mineral content, and some of the terraces have been dated: a series of ESR and U-series dates performed at La Micoque suggest that the deposits of Fw1 date to MIS 12 and Fw2 to MIS 10 (Texier 2009).  During the Pleistocene the river regime had predominantly  an erosive nature, in which downcutting and erosion dominated. Sand was deposited during floods that covered the channel gravels. Most of these sandy deposits have been eroded later, although at several locations they have been preserved below a pile of Holocene overbank loams.

Caves and rock shelters usually preserved deposits of post Eemian  age, while older strata where destructed by erosion. In contrast, we do know allmost nothing about open air sites in the floodplain, where erosion and /or Holocene overbank deposits had negative consequences on the preservation of traces of human activities. Therefore our view on the settlement systems is certainly biased.

Keeping this limitations in mind, systematic data about the setlement systems during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic could be of interest, because a species specific landscape use in the Middle Vézére valley seems to emerge.

Upper Paleolithic sites in main or secondary river valleys are found significantly closer to the river and at low elevation sheltered locations (for example: La Madeleine). They are more likely to be near river fords and offer a good view to the valley ground. During the Upper Paleolithic, there does not appear to be a strong correlation between site locations and sources of lithic raw materials.

This is thought to represent the increased importance of the rivers themselves in Upper Paleolithic settlement as compared to that of the Middle Paleolithic. One of the most striking patterns is a strong correlation between sites and the location of natural shallows, or fords, in the river. In general, these observations indicate a pattern that is strongly focused on the river, with natural fords potentially playing a role in the groups’ subsistence adaptations.

Interestingly, although it is a significant feature on the landscape, the river itself does not appear to be an important component of Middle Paleolithic settlement. Cave and rockshelter sites are more commonly found at moderate elevation in tributary valleys and are less often  located in the main or secondary valleys. Middle Paleolithic sites tend to be well protected from the elements, located above the flood plain and to provide access to open plateau areas. Additionally, many authors have observed higher densities of open air sites in the plateau areas between the main valleys within a short distance from multiple biomes.

Even these open air sites are observed to have a slight southern orientation and to be frequently located in a depression which would provide some protection from wind and weather. All of these patterns are usually distilled into a view of Middle Paleolithic settlement being controlled by a need for protection from a harsh environment and with easy access to lithic raw materials.

While AMH (Upper Paleolithic) settlement systems seemed to be focused on specialized exploitation of a single resource, often at places where migrating reindeers would be at a disadvantage, Neanderthal (Middle Paleolithic) societies  preferred heterogeneous environments where diverse resources would be available.

 The artifacts of this post are two MTA handaxes (13 and 9 cm long) from sites that have been reported by Rigaud at a number of localities on the Meyrals plateaux between the valleys of the Vézére and the Dordogne. A similar handaxe from the Meyrals site had been acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in 1932 (shown in: Michael Petraglia and Richard Potts: Old World Paleolithic and the Development of a National Collection; free on the internet). Other MTA sites are also known of the high plateaux areas between the Dordogne and the Lot. To the north of the Perigord similar examples of extremely rich, extensive open-air sites have been reported at Fontmaure in the Vienne.

At Meyrals, Early Upper Paleolithic was also present, as already shown in an earlier post, but such findings are rare. Beyond the different settlement systems of AHMs and Neanderthals one should consider the time frames we are talking about: The Aurignacian lasted  7-10 k.a. The MTA  lasted consinderably longer, about 20 k.a. Much more time for Cordiform Handaxes to accumulate than for Aurignacian artifacts….

Suggested Readings:

Matthew Learoyd Sisk: Settlement and Site Location in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic of the Vézère Valley, France
: https://curate.nd.edu/downloads/s7526972b51

A small Handaxe from Fontmaure (Vienne)

A thick retouched Aurignacian blade from Meyrals / Périgord Noir

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