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Le Moustier

Neanderthal rock shelter
Mousterian Culture type-site

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Neanderthal skull found at Le Moustier, type site of the Middle Stone Age Mousterian culture
Skull of H. neanderthalensis recovered from Le Moustier. Image by Gary Todd. (Public Domain).

Why is Le Moustier Famous?

Le Moustier is an archaeological site made up of two rock shelters (upper and lower) in Peyzac-le-Moustier, a village in the French Dordogne.

First populated by early humans during the Lower Paleolithic, around 300,000 BC, and by Neanderthals from 150,000 BC, Le Moustier is famous for two reasons:

  1. It was here, in the upper shelter, in 1863, that archaeologists found the first sizeable assemblage of advanced stone tools, created by a new method of flint-knapping. As a result, Le Moustier became the type-site of the new tool style, which was called the Mousterian tool culture.
  2. In 1908, in the lower shelter, researchers found a complete skeleton of a Neanderthal adolescent (Le-Moustier 1) dated to 43,000 BC. Six years later, archaeologists discovered the skeleton of a new born Neanderthal baby (Le-Moustier 2), dated to 38,000 BC, was discovered in a separate burial hole at the shelter.

The combined discovery of tools and human fossils made Le Moustier a major Neanderthal site and an important site of Stone Age culture in the Périgord.

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

How are Human Fossils Dated?

Answer: By using a combination of relative and absolute dating technologies. For details, see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

Location

The gisement of Le Moustier is situated on the north bank of the Vézère, near its confluence with the Vimont valley and its small stream - the Vimont Rau, or the Rau du Moustier - opposite La Roque Saint-Christophe.

The site consists of two rock shelters: an upper shelter, set in the cliff face, and a second shelter set at the base of the cliff, 14 metres below.

Discovery and Excavation

The upper shelter was discovered and excavated in 1863, by the paleontologist Édouard Lartet (1801-71) and the wealthy English ethnologist Henry Christy (1810-65).

Coincidentally, Lartet also discovered Aurignac Cave - the type-site of the Aurignacian, and La Madeleine - the type-site of Magdalenian culture.

At Le Moustier, he found important examples of (up until then) a new tool industry produced during the Middle Paleolithic. This industry would later be named after Le Moustier.

The lower shelter was first examined in 1907 and deposits revealed several levels of occupancy.

As mentioned, the partial skeleton of an adolescent was unearthed in 1908, and an almost intact skeleton of a newborn child, in 1914.

The study of the adolescent skull helped scientists to reconstruct the typical facial and physical characteristics of Neanderthal humans: viz, receding forehead, elongated cranium, projecting nose and jaw, short physique and strong bones.

Archaeologists conducted new excavations in the lower shelter, in 1969. Most artifacts and fossils have now been removed.

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Mousterian Culture

The tool industry found at Le Moustier is traditionally associated with Neanderthals in Europe and western Asia, as well as parts of north Africa, from roughly 160,000 to 40,000 BC.

A wider definition of the Mousterian culture uses the term Levallois-Mousterian. This combined culture dates from to 300,000 BC to 40,000 BC - a period which witnessed the emergence, dominance and decline of the Neanderthals and their Mousterian toolkit.

In the Middle East, the Mousterian culture led into the Emiran and Ahmarian cultures from about 60,000 BC. Modern humans out of Africa were strongly involved in the development of these tool industries.

In Europe, the Mousterian was followed by the Châtelperronian around 45,000 BC. Based on evidence from Mandrin Cave in the Rhône Valley, Cro-Magnon modern humans were in Europe no later than 54,000 BC, and thus are likely to have played a significant role in this industry.

Although not yet fully understood, Neanderthals became extinct in Europe around 37,000 BC, less than 17,000 years after the arrival of Cro-Magnons. When this happened, Mousterian tools disappeared abruptly.

Tools at Le Moustier

Mousterian stone tools found at Le Moustier (most of which date to around 60,000 BC), include small hand axes made from disk-shaped cores, points, as well as side-scrapers (racloirs), and sharp triangular points, probably used as knives, as well as denticulate tools with jagged edges, used as saws.

Some flint flake tools were produced using a Levallois prepared-core technique.

The Levallois flint-knapping technique involves carefully preparing (trimming) the core, so that a perfect flake is dislodged when the core is finally struck.

Archaeologists believe Levallois flint-knappers needed to have an 'idea' of the flake they wanted to produce, in advance of preparing the core, and that this demonstrated an increased cognitive ability, compared to previous Acheulean tool-makers. For more, see: History of Stone Tools.

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Neanderthal Skeletons

Le-Moustier 1 is the skull and skeleton of an adolescent, aged about 15 years, with a cranian capacity of about 1500-65 cubic centimetres.

It was found by O. Hauser, a Swiss dealer in Stone Age antiquities, and documented as having a large nasal cavity and a rather less developed brow ridge and occipital bun.

The fossils were duly sold to the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. Here, the skeleton was lost during World War II, while the skull was damaged, looted, then returned to Germany.

The remains of the skull, important parts of which are missing, are now in the Neues Museum, Berlin.

Le-Moustier 2, the skeleton of a new born baby, was discovered and exhumed by archaeologist Denys Peyrony, in 1914.

At the time, it was one of the best preserved and most complete neanderthal skeletons in existence.

However, after being documented, it went missing - supposedly in Paris. Then in 1996, the remains were discovered in the local Prehistoric archaeological museum at Les-Eyzies, where it is now on display.

Note: Another important Neanderthal cave in the Vézère valley is La Ferrassie (c.60,000 BC), where the bodies of seven Neanderthals were discovered.

Art at Le Moustier

No cave art or mobiliary art was found at either rock shelter.

This is not unusual for an occupied rock shelter prior to the Aurignacian culture. See also La Micoque, the oldest site in the Dordogne.

This is not to say that Neanderthals had no use for art.

On the contrary, the Krapina eagle claw jewellery (130,000 BC) and the Los Aviones Cave shell jewellery (115,000 BC) show the value they placed on decorative art.

In addition, the Bruniquel Cave constructions (175,000 BC), as well as the Maltravieso Cave hand stencils (64,700 BC), the scalariform at La Pasiega (62,000 BC); and the Ardales Cave stalactite paintings (63,000 BC), all show the artistic streak of H. neanderthalensis.

For more on the chronology of Neanderthal art during the Stone Age, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "Middle Paleolithic symbolism: a review of current evidence and interpretations." Chase, P. G. and Dibble, H. L. (1987). J Anthropol Archaeol 6. Vol 6, pp. 263-296.
(2) Peyrony, D., 1930: Le Moustier. Ses gisements, ses industries, ses couches géologiques Revue anthropologique, XL, 1930, p.49-52
(3) "A lost Neanderthal neonate found." Maureille, Bruno. Nature, (2002) Vol. 419 Issue 6902, p.33
(4) "La Redécouverte du Nouveau-Né Néandertalien: Le Moustier 2." Maureille, Bruno. PALEO – N° 14 – December 2002 – pp 221-238
(5) "The timing and spatio-temporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance". Higham, Tom, et al. (2014) Nature. 512 (7514): 306–309.

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