La Ferrassie Cave (France)

Neanderthal and Early Modern Human Site in the Dordogne Valley

La Ferraissie, Paleolithic Cave Art Site in France
La Ferraissie, Paleolithic Cave Art Site in France. User 120

Abstract

The French rockshelter of La Ferrassie in the Dordogne valley of France is important for its very long use (22,000-~70,000 years ago) by both Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans. Eight very-well preserved Neanderthals skeletons found in the lowest levels of the cave include two adults and several children, who are estimated to have died between 40,000-70,000 years ago. Scholars are divided as to whether the Neanderthals represent intentional burials or not.

Evidence and Background

La Ferrassie cave is a very large rock shelter in the Les Eyzies region of the Perigord, Dordogne Valley, France, in the same valley and within 10 kilometers from the Neanderthal sites of Abri Pataud and Abri Le Facteur. The site is near Savignac-de-Miremont, 3.5 kilometers north of Le Bugue and in a small tributary of the Vézère river. La Ferrassie contains Middle Paleolithic Mousterian, currently undated, and Upper Paleolithic Chatelperronian, Aurignacian, and Gravettian/Perigordian, dated between 45,000 and 22,000 years ago.

Stratigraphy and Chronology

Despite the very long stratigraphic record at La Ferrassie, chronological data securely pinning down the age of the occupations is limited and confusing. In 2008, a reexamination of the stratigraphy of La Ferrassie cave using geomorphological investigations produced a refined chronology, indicating that the human occupations occurred between Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 3 and 2, and estimated at between 28,000 and 41,000 years ago. That doesn't seem to have included the Mousterian levels. Dates compiled from Bertran et al. and Mellars et al. are follows:

Compiled Dates from La Ferrassie

Level Cultural Component Date
B4 Gravettian Noailles
B7 Late Perigordian/Gravettian Noailles AMS 23,800 RCYBP
D2, D2y Gravettian Fort-Robert AMS 28,000 RCYBP
D2x Perigordian IV/Gravettian AMS 27,900 RCYBP
D2h Perigordian IV/Gravettian AMS 27,520 RCYBP
E Perigordian IV/Gravettian AMS 26,250 RCYBP
E1s Aurignacian IV
F Aurignacian II-IV
G1 Aurignacian III/IV AMS 29,000 RCYBP
G0, G1, I1, I2 Aurignacian III AMS 27,000 RCYBP
J, K2, K3a, K3b, Kr, K5 Aurignacian II AMS 24,000-30,000 RCYBP
K4 Aurignacian II AMS 28,600 RCYBP
K6 Aurignacian I
L3a Chatelperronian AMS 40,000-34,000 RCYBP
M2e Mousterian

Bertran et al. summarized the dates for the major occupations (except for the Mousterian) as follows:

  • Chatelperronian (40,000-34,000 BP), L3a
  • Aurignacian/Gravettian (45,000-22,000 BP), I1, G1, E1d, E1b, E1, D2)
  • Aurignacian (45,000-29,000 BP), K3 and J

Neanderthal Burials at La Ferrassie

The site has been interpreted by some scholars as the deliberate burial of eight Neanderthal individuals, two adults and six children, all of whom are Neanderthals, and dated to the Late Mousterian period, which has not been direct-dated at La Ferrassie--typical dates for Ferrassie-style Mousterian tools range between 35,000 and 75,000 years ago.

La Ferrassie includes the skeletal remains of several children: La Ferrassie 4 is an infant of an estimated age of 12 days; LF 6 a child of 3 years; LF8 approximately 2 years. La Ferrassie 1 is one of the most complete Neanderthal skeletons yet preserved, and it exhibited advanced age for a Neanderthal (~40-55 years).

LF1's skeleton exhibited some health problems including a systemic infection and osteo-arthritis, considered evidence that this man was taken care of after he could no longer participate in subsistence activities. La Ferrassie 1's level of preservation has allowed scholars to argue that Neanderthals had similar vocal ranges to early modern humans (see Martinez et al.).

Burial pits at La Ferrassie, if that's what they are, appear to be about 70 centimeters (27 inches) in diameter and 40 cm (16 in) deep. However, this evidence for the deliberate burial at La Ferrassie is debated: some geomorphological evidence suggests that the burials resulted from natural slumping. If indeed these are intentional burials, they would be among the oldest yet identified.

Archaeology

La Ferrassie was discovered in the late 19th century, and excavated in the first decade of the 20th century by French archaeologists Denis Peyrony and Louis Capitan and in the 1980s by Henri Delporte. The Neanderthal skeletons at La Ferrassie were first described by Jean Louis Heim in the late 1980s and early 1980s; focus on the spine of LF1 (Gómez-Olivencia) and the bones of the ear of LF3 (Quam et al.) were described in 2013.