Type-site of Gravettian culture
Stone tools, sculpture, cave art
The culture was created by Cro-Magnons - the dominant species of modern humans in Europe. It is noted above all for its stone tools ('Gravettian points'), as well as its prehistoric art: notably the small carvings known as venus figurines, which were made throughout Europe.
In France the Gravettian is also known as the Upper Périgordian.
La Gravette is situated in the valley of the River Couze, in the French Dordogne. It is one of many paleolithic caves found in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, which was an area of great cultural activity during the Ice Age of the Upper Paleolithic.
La Gravette was first discovered by Monseigneur Chastaing in the spring of 1880. Excavations began almost immediately.
La Gravette was investigated by two researchers, Costes and Tababou, who duly sold off the artifacts found, to the Musée de Périgueux, the Musée de Bordeaux, and to some American collectors.
Afterwards, excavations were renewed by several other individuals, including Delugin, Féaux, Hardy, Landesque, and Testut.
Then, in 1930, the site was bought by archaeologist Fernand Lacorre - who had previously excavated Aurignac Cave, the type-site of the preceding Aurignacian culture.
Lacorre conducted numerous excavations between 1930 and 1954, and in 1958 donated the site to the French Musée d'Archéologie nationale. In 1960, he published a major monograph on the excavations.
La Gravette rock shelter is an important site of Stone Age culture because it is the type-site of the Gravettian culture, which is noted for its individual style of stone tools, as well as its mobiliary art and certain exceptional sites of cave art, notably in the French Lot.
The Gravettian led up to the Last Glacial Maximum, around 20,000 BC, when Ice Age temperatures reached their lowest point.
During this time, northern Europe was almost uninhabitable, while southern France and northern Spain saw their populations rise as climate refugees migrated south.
Fortunately, the French southwest, with its network of river valleys was also home to large herds of reindeer and other game animals, which provided a good supply of food, hides and other materials.
Curiously, Gravettian people proved to be much more mobile than their Neanderthal predecessors. They managed to develop the organizational skills that enabled them to follow the migrating animal herds, killing, butchering and transporting the carcasses back to their base as they went - a routine that Neanderthals had never mastered.
The site was first occupied by modern humans about 35,000 BC, during the Aurignacian, and the occupation continued throughout the Gravettian.
The Gravettian is best-known for its tanged projectile points - known as 'Gravettian points' - which were hafted onto darts, javelins and stabbing spears.
These stone tools are diagnostic markers for the Gravettian in Western Europe.
The Gravettian hunter-gatherer toolkit also included narrow flint knife blades, which were used as hafted butchering knives.
In addition to these backed blades, the culture also produced several types of scrapers, smoothers and, in some areas, burins.
All these basic tool types were present at La Gravette, which contained different layers of deposits relating to the Aurignacian, the Gravettian, and also a new, less widespread, tool culture that Lacorre named the Bayacian.
This new style included a range of retouched leaf-shaped dart-points known as flechettes. See also: History of Stone Tools.
In addition to its tools, the Gravettian culture was an important period of Upper Paleolithic art for both portable and parietal works.
Gravettian artists are best-known for their mobiliary art: in particular, a series of small-scale female figurines, typically carved out of mammoth ivory, limestone or other soft stone.
Most conformed to a specific body shape with several uniform features: they were nude and severely obese, with undefined or absent head, hands and feet, and with exaggerated female features.
Famous examples of venus figurines created in Western Europe include:
By comparison, Russian venuses were less obese and were sometimes clothed.
Gravettian parietal art could also be spectacular. The Panel of the Spotted Horses at Pech Merle Cave in the Lot, is one of the most famous highlights, along with the hand stencils at Gargas Cave and the engravings at Roucadour Cave.
For more on the evolution of Upper Paleolithic culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).
(1) "La Gravette, le Gravettien et le Bayacien." Fernand Lacorre. Laval, 1960.
(2) "Neandertals and Climate". Holden, C. (2004). Science. 303 (5659): 759.
(3) "The analysis of certain major classes of Upper Paleolithic tools." Movius H.L. Jr, David N., Bricker H., Clay B. 1968: American School of Prehistoric Research, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.