La Chapelle-aux-Saints (France)

Neanderthal Site of La Chapelle-aux-Saints

La Chapelle-aux-Saints
La Chapelle-aux-Saints. PLOS

La Chapelle aux Saints (meaning "Holy Chapel" in French and often abbreviated as LC or LCAS in the scientific literature) is one of five caves and rockshelters located within the Bouffia Bonneval, in a cliff above the Sourdoire river valley of France. The single occupation identified within LC has been dated using Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) to between 47,000 and 56,000 years ago.

The site includes the skeleton of an adult male Neanderthal, as well as stone tools and animal bones, including at least 19 reindeer and 15 bison.

Approximately 30% of the animal bones exhibit butchery marks; others have been burned, clear evidence of human processing and consumption. Lithic knapping debris is also in evidence, leading some scholars to interpret Chapelle aux Saints as an occupation site, although the original excavators were convinced it was an intentional burial, similar to Saint Cesaire.

Human Occupations at LC

Studies by Rendu and colleagues (2013) identified several separate locations within the cave that contained additional human occupations dated to Marine Isotope Stages 4 (MIS 4 74,000-60,000 years BP) and 3 (MIS 3, 60,000-24,000 BP), some mixed with carnivore dens. These occupations provide evidence that Chapelle aux Saints was occupied during both Middle Paleolithic (Mousterian) and Upper Paleolithic (Chatelperronian) periods.

  • Bouffia Bonneval, MIS 4 and 3, Quina Mousterian, MTA Mousterian, and Levallois Mousterian
  • Bouffia 102, Mixed Deposit, MIS 4 and 3, Quina Mousterian, Levallois Mousterian and Chatelperronian
  • Bouffia 118 Alpha Level, MIS 3, MTA Mousterian
  • Bouffia 118 C2 Level, MIS 4, Levallois Mousterian
  • Secteur 129, MIS 3, Upper Paleolithic
  • Secteur 137-139, Mixed Deposit, MIS 3, Mousterian and Chatelperronian

    Skeleton 1 (the "Old Man")

    The "Old Man" of Chapelle aux Saints is what scholars call the nearly complete skeleton of an adult male Neanderthal, who died somewhere between 25-40 years of age. The skeleton has several indications that the individual was quite advanced in age. Several teeth were extremely worn down and others were missing, and the condition of the auricular (ear) surfaces suggest the individual was elderly. The skeleton also has evidence of pronounced osteoarthritis including what appears to be the extreme curvature of his lower spine. He stood between 162 and 163.6 centimeters (63.7-64.4 inches) tall and his body weight has been estimated at 77.3 kilograms (170.4 pounds).

    In 1913, physical anthropologist Pierre Marcellin Boule examined and restored the bones and argued that the spine irregularities were evidence that Neanderthals had a curved spine and a hunched-over posture. Boule gathered considerable criticism for his interpretation right from the start, but the removal of Neanderthals from their hulking posture took another 70 years or so to be corrected. Today, scholars are largely agreed that osteoarthritis is a more reasonable explanation.

    However, why the Neanderthal had such extreme damage to his lower vertebrae has been the continuing subject of discussion.

    Scholars Dawson and Trinkaus (1995, 1997) argued that the osteoarthritis was evidence of trauma resulting from some heavy physical activity that occurred during his lifetime, incapacitating him. In 2012, armed with additional comparative evidence from other Neanderthal and Early Modern Human sites such as St. Césaire (Zollikofer et al.), Shanidar Cave and Sunghir 1, Trinkaus arguef that there were likely multiple reasons for the traumatic injuries, including interpersonal violence.

    Purposeful Burial?

    In their 2013 excavation report, Rendu and colleagues reported that they had found or identified from earlier excavations additional small bone fragments from the Old Man skeleton, as well as two juvenile Neanderthals represented by deciduous teeth and a second adult represented by three molar fragments.

    The bone fragments were recovered from what appears to be an artificially modified pit. Based on that, Rendu et al. believe they have rediscovered the precise context of the Old Man's skeleton reported in the 1908 excavations, and using modern methods were able to reassess the sedimentation processes in the cave.

    The pit is a 39-centimeter (15 inches) deep, 140x85 cm (55x33 in) wide subrectangular depression cut into the substrate marl. Evidence seems to suggest that the pit was at least enlarged before the skeleton was placed in it. In addition, the physical state of the Neanderthal bones, compared to that of the reindeer and bison, shows significantly less deterioration and no carnivore gnawing. These two strands of evidence suggest to the researchers that this Neanderthal man was purposefully buried and quickly, before carnivores and exposure to the elements affected the bones.

    Evidence for purposeful burials by Neanderthals is still somewhat controversial. Only a handful of Neanderthal sites (La Ferassie, Le Moustier, Feldhofer, La Quina, Grotte du Loup, Saint-Cesaire, Las Palomas, Roc de Marsal) contain strong evidence for purposeful burials, and all of these are younger than the Old Man of La Chapelle.


    Chapelle was discovered by Amédée, Jean and Paul Bouyssonie in 1908, and first described by Marcellin Boule early decades of the 20th century.


    This article is a part of the guide to the Neanderthals, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

    Dawson JE, and Trinkaus E. 1997. Vertebral Osteoarthritis of the La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1 Neanderthal. Journal of Archaeological Science 24:1015–1021.

    Gómez-Olivencia A. 2013. Back to the old man's back: Reassessment of the anatomical determination of the vertebrae of the Neandertal individual of La Chapelle-aux-Saints. Annales de Paléontologie 99(1):43-65.

    Rendu W, Beauval C, Crevecoeur I, Bayle P, Balzeau A, Bismuth T, Bourguignon L, Delfour G, Faivre J-P, Lacrampe-Cuyaubère F et al. . 2013. Evidence supporting an intentional Neandertal burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints.

     Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.

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    Trinkaus E. 2011. The postcranial dimensions of the La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1 Neandertal. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 145(3):461-468.

    Trinkaus E. 2012. Neandertals, early modern humans, and rodeo riders. Journal of Archaeological Science 39(12):3691-3693.

    Zollikofer CPE, Ponce de León MS, Vandermeersch B, and Lévêque F. 2002. Evidence for interpersonal violence in the St. Césaire Neanderthal. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99(9):6444-6448.