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Letter from France

Structural Integrity

Nearly 20 years of investigation at two rock shelters in southwestern France reveal the well-organized domestic spaces of Europe's earliest modern humans

January/February 2013





During a car ride through France’s Dordogne department, it doesn’t take long to realize that you’re no longer in wine country. Signs and billboards bearing words like “Cro Magnon” and “Prehistorie” and  “Grotte” (French for “cave”) are stationed along the highways and winding roads. Here, the claim to fame isn’t the terroir, but a preponderance of Paleolithic sites, such as Lascaux, Pech Merle, and Font-de-Gaume, all of which hold some of Europe’s earliest cave paintings.


New York University archaeologist Randall White has spent the bulk of the last 18 years here investigating two collapsed rock shelters once inhabited by some of Europe’s first modern humans. Abri Blanchard and its neighbor to the south, Abri Castanet, sit along a cliff face in the Castel Merle Valley, just beyond the quiet, 190-person commune of Sergeac.


Abri Blanchard, perched to the left, and Castanet, to its right, once housed extended families who congregated here in the winter, possibly for the purpose of finding mates, group hunting, and other activities necessary for survival. At Abri Castanet, a steep slope covered by a pile of fallen rocks, soil, and debris extends to the top of the cliff. Immediately to the south is a vast clearing. White says that occupation might have extended south along the cliff face and deep into the clearing. Today, the field is part of Castel Merle, a tourist destination where visitors get the opportunity to practice throwing an ancient spear called an atlatl at a hay bale with a picture of a reindeer on it. White says, “This was Grand Central Station for reasons that are not very clear except for these deep rock shelters.”


A few hours after my first glimpse of the sites this past July, White and 10 members of his team crammed themselves under a tarp overhang in a northern sector of Abri Blanchard. Excavation director Romain Mensan, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail, assisted two graduate students in extracting a one-foot limestone slab embedded in the shelter’s floor. The day before, an adjoining piece of this block had been recovered. On its underside was an engraving of what appeared to be the rear of an animal. The team hoped this next piece would provide the rest of the illustration.


“You picked the right time to visit,” team member Amy Clark, a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona, told me. She was right. After removing the slab from the ground, White’s team determined that the engraving was of an aurochs, an ancestor of modern cattle. White suspects the artwork is about 35,000 years old, though lab results won’t confirm his hunch until early 2013. Nevertheless, the depiction is likely one the earliest pieces of art ever made in Europe.