Terra Amata (France) - Neanderthal Life on the French Riviera

Who Wouldn't Live on the Mediterranean Beach, 400,000 Years Ago?

View of the Mediterranean from Beach at Nice, France
View of the Mediterranean from Beach at Nice, France. blue_quartz

Terra Amata is an open-air (i.e., not in a cave) Lower Paleolithic period archaeological site, located within the city limits of the modern French Riviera community of Nice, on the western slopes of Mount Boron of southeastern France. Currently at an altitude of 30 meters (about 100 feet) above modern sea-level, while it was occupied Terra Amata was located on the Mediterranean coast, near a river delta in a swamp environment. Excavator Henry de Lumley identified several distinct Acheulean occupations, where our hominin ancestor the Neanderthals lived on the beach, during Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 11, somewhere between 427,000-364,000 years ago.

Stone tools found at the site include a variety of objects made out of beach pebbles, including choppers, chopping-tools, handaxes and cleavers. There are a few tools made on sharp flakes (debitage), most of which are scraping tools of one sort or another (scrapers, denticulates, notched pieces). A few bifaces formed on pebbles were found in the collections and reported in 2015: investigator Viallet believes the bifacial form was an accidental result from percussion on semi-hard materials, rather than the deliberate shaping of a bifacial tool. The Levallois core technology, a stone technology used by Neanderthals later in time, is not in evidence at Terra Amata.

Animal Bones: What was for Dinner?

Over 12,000 animal bones and bone fragments were collected from Terra Amata, about 20% of which have been identified to species. Examples of eight large-bodied mammals were butchered by the people living on the beach: Elephas antiquus (straight-tusked elephant), Cervus elaphus (red deer) and Sus scrofa (pig) were the most abundant, and Bos primigenius (auroch), Ursus arctos (brown bear), Hemitragus bonali (goat) and Stephanorhinus hemitoechus (rhinoceros) were present in lesser amounts. These animals are characteristic to MIS 11-8, a temperate period of the Middle Pleistocene, although geologically the site has been determined to fall into MIS-11.

Study of the bones (known as taphonomy) shows that the residents of Terra Amata were hunting red deer and transporting the entire carcasses to the site and then butchering them there. Deer long bones from Terra Amata were broken for marrow extraction, evidence of which includes percussion cones and bone flakes. The bones also exhibit a significant number of cut marks and striations: clear evidence that the animals were being butchered. Aurochs and young elephants were also hunted, but only the meatier portions of those carcasses were schlepped (archaeology jargon derived from the Yiddish word) to the site: only claws and cranial fragments of pig bones were brought back to camp, which may mean the Neanderthals scavenged the pieces rather than hunted the pigs.

Archaeology at Terra Amata

Terra Amata was excavated by French archaeologist Henry de Lumley in 1966, who spent six months excavating about 120 square meters. De Lumley identified about 10 meters (30.5 feet) of deposits, and in addition to the large mammal bone remains, he reported evidence of hearths and huts, indicating the Neanderthals lived for some time on the beach.

Recent investigations of the assemblages (Moigne et al. 2015) identified examples of bone retouchers in the assemblage (and other EP Neanderthal sites Orgnac 3, Cagny-l'Epinette and Cueva del Angel), a type of tool used by Neanderthals during the Middle Paleolithic period (MIS 7-3). Basically, a bone retoucher (or baton) is a tool used by flint-knappers to finish a stone tool. The tools are not as frequent or patterned as on later Neanderthal sites in Europe, but Moigne and colleagues argue that these are early forms of the later soft-hammer percussion tools.


This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Lower Paleolithic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

de Lumley H. 1969. A Paleolithic camp at Nice. Scientific American 220:33-41.

Moigne A-M, Valensi P, Auguste P, García-Solano J, Tuffreau A, Lamotte A, Barroso C, and Moncel M-H. 2015. Bone retouchers from Lower Palaeolithic sites: Terra Amata, Orgnac 3, Cagny-l'Epinette and Cueva del Angel. Quaternary International: in press.

Trevor-Deutsch B, and Bryant Jr VM. 1978. Analysis of suspected human coprolites from Terra Amata, Nice, France. Journal of Archaeological Science 5(4):387-390.

Valensi P. 2001. The elephants of Terra Amata open air site (Lower Paleolithic, France). In: Cavarretta G, Gioia P, Mussi M, and Palombo MR, editors. The World of Elephants - International Conference. Rome: C.N.R. p 260-264.

Villa P. 1982. Conjoinable pieces and site formation processes. American Antiquity 47:276-310.