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La Ferrassie Cave

Neanderthal cupules: 60,000 BC
Rock engravings: 30,000 BC

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Cupules (cup-shaped marks) created in a stone slab at La Ferrassie Cave by Neanderthal occupants
Mousterian cupules at La Ferrassie Cave, hammered out of rock by Neanderthals. Image by Don Hitchcock. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Cupules in the Perigord

La Ferrassie Cave is a small complex of paleolithic caves located in the Perigord region of south-west France. It is made up of one large cave and two rock shelters.

The complex is famous for two reasons.

First, it harboured the remains of eight Neanderthals, including the most complete skull found up to that time.

Second, it contained a collection of cupule signs - the mysterious form of primitive rock art - dating back to the Mousterian culture around 60,000 BC. See also the cupules at the Dordogne rock shelter: Abri Cellier (36,000 BC).

At one time La Ferrassie was the oldest site of prehistoric art in Europe. But new discoveries of Neanderthal art at the Krapina Cave in Croatia and the Los Aviones Cave in Spain, have altered the Prehistoric Art Timeline - at least for Europe.

Location

La Ferrassie is situated 3.5 kilometers north of Le Bugue, in the Vézère valley, a location rich in prehistory.

Indeed, the "Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley" have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, since 1979.

The Vézère Valley region is home to numerous important sites of Stone Age art including: Abri Castanet (35,000 BC), Abri du Poisson Cave (23,000 BC), Lascaux Cave (19,000 BC), Font de Gaume Cave (14,000 BC), Cap Blanc (13,000 BC), Les Combarelles Cave (12,000 BC), and Rouffignac Cave (11,000 BC).

Other important sites include: Abri de Cro-Magnon (type site for Cro-Magnons - the first modern humans arriving in Europe), Le Moustier (type site for Mousterian culture), and La Madeleine (type site for Magdalenian culture).

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Discovery & Excavation

The site was known in the late 19th century but not investigated and documented until the archaeologists Denis Peyrony and Louis Capitan excavated the site in 1905.

Fossils, stone tools and other signs of human occupation were uncovered from the Middle and Upper Paleolithic eras, involving Mousterian, Chatelperronian, Aurignacian, and Perigoridian tool cultures, dating from about 70,000 BC to about 25,000 BC.

The main occupants of the cave were Neanderthals, and the site included a Mousterian graveyard of unknown age, from which archaeologists recovered several well-preserved skeletons and one of the most complete skulls of H. neanderthalensis ever found.

Forensic examination of the skeleton revealed a serious arthritic condition, indicating that the person must have been cared for, despite his lack of mobility - another example of the advanced nature of Neanderthal culture.

Remains were also found of six children and a female adult. All the human remains in the cave were lying in a thin 60 cm layer, which was dated to between 72,000 and 66,000 BC.

Other Vézère Valley Caves occupied by Neanderthals, include: La Micoque, the oldest Neanderthal site in the Dordogne; and Le Moustier where two Neanderthal skeletons were recovered.

La Ferrassie's Cupules

In 1933, in another section of the site, a large limestone slab was found overlying the grave of a Neanderthal child.

On its underside was found a quantity of cupules - cup-like hollows gouged out of the rock by percussion from a hammerstone.

They comprised, 2 larger cupules and eight pairs of smaller hollows, leading cupule-expert Robert Bednarik to describe the site as one of significant cultural complexity.

Due to significant traces of Mousterian occupation, the La Ferrassie cupules have been given an approximate date of 60,000 BC.

Bednarik himself thought the cupules were probably "between 70,000 and perhaps 40,000 years old."

Compared to the beautiful cave painting at Lascaux, Altamira and other sites, during the eras of Solutrean and Magdalenian art, cupules are a much more primitive form of cultural expression.

Created by pounding rock surfaces with hammerstones, they are probably the oldest abstract markings ever made.

They exist on every populated continent, but because experts remain mystified by their meaning and cultural significance, they are not taken seriously as a form of cave art - certainly nothing like as serious as paintings, engravings or relief sculpture.

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Rock Engravings

As well as cupules, La Ferrassie Cave also contains several boulders decorated with rock engravings, depicting animal figures as well as deeply incised human vulvas.

Most date to the Aurignacian-Gravettian cultures between 30,000 and 26,000 BC. For other rock engravings by Neanderthals, see: Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar.

Related Articles

For more examples of Neanderthal art, see:

References

(1) "The Oldest Known Rock art in the World." - Robert G. Bednarik. Anthropologie - Vol. 39, No. 2/3 (2001), pp. 89-98.
(2) "Aurignacian lithic economy and early modern human mobility: new perspectives from classic sites in the Vézère valley of France". Brooke S. Blades. J Hum Evol. 37 (1): 91–120.
(3) Peyrony, D 1934. La Ferrassie. Moustérien, Périgordien, Aurignacien. Préhistoire 3: 1–92.

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