Grotte des Pigeons (Morocco)

Middle and Upper Paleolithic Rockshelter in Morocco

Grotte des Pigeons, Morocco
Grotte des Pigeons in Morocco viewed from the surrounding hills. Image courtesy of Ian Cartwright

The Grotte des Pigeons (Pigeon Cave, and sometimes reported as Taforalt Cave) is a Middle and Upper Paleolithic/Epipaleolithic (aka Later Stone Age) rockshelter located near the village of Taforalt, in eastern Morocco. It is important for its early example of shell beads (MP), and for containing one of the earliest and most extensively used prehistoric cemeteries in North Africa (UP/EpiP).

The cave was formed in dolomitic limestone, and has a large entrance and a floor area within the drip line of approximately 400 square meters (4,300 square feet).

The site lies within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of the Mediterranean coast, at an altitude of 720 m (2,360 ft) above sea level.

Chronology

Grotte des Pigeons contains Middle and Upper Paleolithic occupations, from five main units called Groups A through F, within a total deposit thickness of ~10 m (32 ft). Sector 10 associated with Group A was identified in a niche at the northeastern end of the cave.

  • Group A: Upper Paleolithic/Epipaleolithic (Iberomaurusian), human burials, context  dated between 12,675-10,935 RCYBP
  • Sector 10 of Group A and also Upper Paleolithic/Epipaleolithic (Iberomaurusian): Rapidly deposited ashy layers known as the "Grey Series", included human burials dated between 15,077 and 13,892 cal BP,
  • Group B/C UP/EpiP (Iberomaurusian) top half, lower MP bottom
  • Group D: Middle Paleolithic (Aterian)
  • Group E: MP (Aterian): side scrapers, small radial Levallois cores, a few thin, bifacially worked foliate points, and 13 shells beads, OSL dates 73,400-91,500 years BP
  • Group F: Middle Paleolithic (Aterian)

Upper Paleolithic/Later Stone Age Occupation

Two burial areas were identified within the Upper Paleolithic/Epipaleolithic portions of the site, and excavated in the 1950s. Necropolis I, located on the north side of the cave, was an elliptical area measuring 10x7 m (32x23 ft); Necropolis II was a roughly rectangular area measuring 9x3 m (30x10 ft) in the western part of the cave.

The majority of the skeletons were buried on their backs with their heads to the west and faces pointed eastward. Detailed excavation notes are not available, but at least 28 separate multiple burials (sepultures) were reported. The burials excavated in the 1950s included 80 adults, six adolescents, ~50 children and ~45 infants.

Excavations from  2003-2013 in Sector 10 north of the hypothesized location of Necropolis II identified 13 partially articulated human skeletons, dated between 15,077 and 13,892 cal BP. The burials show evidence of deliberate postmortem modification, including extensive cutmarks and the application of ochre. Burial goods were limited, consisting of animal bones (particularly Barbary sheep horn cores), bone points and stone tools.

Dental Caries at Grotte des Pigeons

Humphrey and colleagues reported in 2014 that dental caries (cavities) are present in over half the teeth recovered from the Upper Paleolithic burials at Taforalt cave. Also prevalent is heavy tooth wear. Evidence shows extremely poor dental health among the population, including root caries, formed at the contact points between teeth; and gross caries, leading to the loss of structural integrity. The older individuals exhibit more and worse caries, including evidence of peridontal disease and tooth loss.

Dental caries are the result of a subsistence strategy which relies on carbohydrates, a situation most often associated with the introduction of agriculture. Macrobotanical remains recovered from contemporaneous layers at Grotte des Pigeons shows these complex hunter-gatherers relied heavily on high-carbohydrate foods including acorns, pine nuts, pistachios and wild oats. These would have been harvested from late summer into fall, but could well have been stored for consumption year-round.

The scholars suggest that the tooth wear is from using grindstones to prepare the nuts (tiny fragments from grindstones got into the nut flour), and that the caries are from predominant reliance on high-carbohydrate nuts: unusual behavior for hunter-gatherers who typically rely on a wide variety of foods, and suggesting a seasonal food stress for this population.

Middle Paleolithic Occupation

In Group E, an Aterian layer dated to 82,000 years ago, was found 13 Nassarius gibbosulus shell beads, apparently perforated so that they could be worn. Evidence from the beads themselves includes a wear pattern different from that of unperforated shells at Taforalt and those of a comparative collection. The abrasion appears to be along the perforated edge, and is characterized by an intense shine and numerous striations: researchers suggest that likely means they were suspended from a cord. In addition, nine perforated beads and one unperforated shell were dyed with red ochre.

Thus, these beads are among the oldest explicitly symbolic artifacts recovered to date, and are the same type as the slightly later beads recovered from the Howiesons Poort assemblages at Blombos Cave in South Africa. See the photo essay Shell Beads and Behavioral modernity for further information.

Archaeology

Grotte des Pigeons was discovered in 1980 and was the subject of three major multi-season  excavations between 1944 and 1977. Sector 10 was first excavated by Jean Roche in the 1950s. A new set of excavations was conducted between 2003 and 2013, under the direction of Abdeljalil Bouzouggar of the Institut National des Sciences de l’Archeologie et du Patrimoine in Rabat.

Sources

This glossary entry is part of the Guide to the Middle Stone Age and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Bouzouggar A, Barton N, Vanhaeren M, d'Errico F, Collcutt S, Higham T, Hodge E, Parfitt S, Rhodes E, Schwenninger JL et al. 2007. 82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104(24):9964-9969.

Humphrey L, Bello SM, Turner E, Bouzouggar A, and Barton N. 2012. Iberomaurusian funerary behaviour: evidence from Grotte des Pigeons, Taforalt, Morocco. Journal of Human Evolution 62(2):261-273.

Humphrey LT, De Groote I, Morales J, Barton N, Collcutt S, Bronk Ramsey C, and Bouzouggar A.

2014. Earliest evidence for caries and exploitation of starchy plant foods in Pleistocene hunter-gatherers from Morocco. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Early Edition).

Irish JD. 2000. The Iberomaurusian enigma: north African progenitor or dead end? Journal of Human Evolution 39(4):393-410.

Reynard LM, Henderson GM, and Hedges REM. 2011. Calcium isotopes in archaeological bones and their relationship to dairy consumption. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(3):657-664.