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La Micoque

Neanderthal/Homo erectus site
400,000-130,000 BC

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La Micoque Rock Shelter, Dordogne, occupied for almost 300,000 years by H.erectus and H. neanderthalensis
Abri de la Micoque, a Middle Stone Age shelter occupied by Homo erectus and Neanderthals. Image by Sémhur. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Summary

La Micoque is a Middle Paleolithic site in the Vézère Valley, which was occupied by early humans from 400,000 to 130,000 BC.

The site contains no prehistoric art, although it might have contained items of portable art that have since disintegrated - see, for instance, the Bilzingsleben Engravings.

However, Micoque boasts an impressive set of archaeological deposits which cover an enormous time span, and it remains the oldest Stone Age site in the Dordogne.

In contrast to the numerous paleolithic caves in the region, La Micoque is neither a cave nor a rock shelter. It is an open-air archaeological site.

As a result, it has suffered some geological disruption from runoff, debris flows, and episodes of fluvial deposition from flowing water.

Stratigraphic analysis of the various layers of sediments laid down by human activity, shows tools, artifacts and fossils from the Late Acheulean, Tayacien, Clactonian, Mousterian and Micoquien cultures.

Location

The Micoque site, named after the ruined farm on which it was found, is located about 4 kilometres north of Les Eyzies, in the Périgord.

It lies at the foot of a rock face, on the north bank of the Manaurie stream, about half a kilometre from the Vézère river and even closer to the rock shelters of Laugerie-Haute and Laugerie-Basse at the confluence of the two waterways.

In 1979, La Micoque - along with other Vézère Valley Caves - was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Discovery & Excavation

In 1895, flint artifacts from the deposit, brought to the surface by ploughing activity, were spotted by the landowner and showed to the eminent prehistorian Émile Rivière (1835-1922).

Rivière instantly recognized the potential of the deposit and began excavations. These continued on and off for many years, as per the following timeline:

La Micoque Stratigraphy

The stratigraphy of La Micoque's deposit, roughly 10 metres deep, is made up of multiple layers of limestone sediments. (Note: stratigraphy is the study of rock layers/strata and layering.)

According to the latest studies, the deposit comprises three sections (bottom, middle, top).

Findings at La Micoque

Unknown Hominins

Although La Micoque has the oldest human occupation in the Dordogne, which predates the emergence of Neanderthal culture, no human remains have been found at the site.

It is not known therefore which hominins were present before the Neanderthals arrived. The two possible candidates are either Homo erectus, or Homo heidelbergensis, but which one it was, remains a mystery.

We do know, however, that no modern humans like Cro-Magnons were present, since the earliest trace of them in Europe comes from the Mandrin Cave in the Rhône Valley, and dates to about 54,500 BC - roughly 75,000 years after La Micoque was abandoned.

No Fires

Another mystery surrounds the lack of hearths or fire-pits at the site. Archaeologists have found no traces of any controlled fire, or any burnt wood, bone or flint at the site.

Since controlled fire had been mastered since 1 million BC, there appears to be no logical reason for its absence over such a long period.

They Eat Horses Don't They?

The horse is the only animal species whose bones are found in all the layers of the Micoque deposit. Many of the long bones are fractured, no doubt deliberately, in order to extract the marrow.

Also found are bison, aurochs, red deer and ibex, but most fossils belong to equines such as Equus mosbachenis and Equus caballus.

A Variety of Stone Tools

Stone tools and debitage are widely dispersed throughout the middle layers of the deposit.

In the oldest levels we find Late Acheulean artifacts, followed by a new assemblage from a 'new' culture - the Tayacien - which Peyrony named after the nearby village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac.

Above this, we find Levallois-Mousterian tools, and Clactonian tools. Above these, were Micoquien remains, mostly removed during early excavations.

Chronology

Late Acheulean: 600,000-200,000 BC
The Acheulean tool tradition (a Mode 2 technology), is characterized by large bifacial tools such as handaxes, cleavers, and picks. The iconic and longest-lived Acheulean tool was the handaxe. The tradition is mainly associated with Homo erectus.

Tayacien: 440,000-350,000 BC
This tool industry is associated with tools similar to those of the Mousterian. Examples include: retouched scrapers, denticulates (tools with edges like teeth, not unlike those of a modern saw) and a range of atypical bifaces.

A characteristic tool is the Tayac point, made from two convergent denticulate cutting edges. Homo heidelbergensis is mostly associated with Homo heidelbergensis.

Clactonian: 400,000-370,000 BC
The Clactonian is a tool industry of European flint manufacture, which is reminiscent of Acheulean tools, except it didn't include handaxes.

Clactonian toolmakers struck thick, irregular flakes from a flint core, which was then used as a chopper. The flakes were employed as crude scrapers and knives.

Levallois: 300,000-160,000 BC
Mousterian: 160,000-40,000 BC
The Levallois-Mousterian combined industry (a Mode 3 technology) is associated mainly with the Neanderthals in Europe, and with the earliest anatomically modern humans in North Africa and West Asia.

It is characterized by a new method of flint-reduction known as the Levallois Technique, which resulted in a new generation of smaller implements, such as 'Levallois points' - a range of small projectile points for spears.

Micoquien: 130,000-60,000 BC
The Micoquien is characterized by the production of elongated and asymmetrical bifaces (flints worked on both sides), rounded in the heel with fine points and concave edges. Examples include scrapers and backed knives.

See also: History of Stone Tools.

Dating

Neanderthal Sites in Europe

For more about the contributions of Homo neanderthalensis to Stone Age culture, see the following articles on Neanderthal cave art:

References

(1) "U-Series and ESR Dating of Teeth from Acheulian and Mousterian Levels at La Micoque (Dordogne, France)." Christophe Falguères, Jean-Jacques Bahain and Hassane Saleki. Journal of Archaeological Science (1997) 24, 537–545.
(2) "La Micoque. Les fouilles récentes. Leur signification." Peyrony, D. (1938). Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Francaise 6, 257–282.
(3) "ESR dating of level L2/3 at La Micoque, Dordogne (France): Excavation of Debénath and Rigaud." Schwarcz, H. P. & Grun, R. (1988). Geoarchaeology 3–4, 293–296.

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