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 swampy environment.

Key Takeaways: Terra Amata Archaeological Site

  • Name: Terra Amata
  • Occupation Dates: 427,000–364,000
  • Culture: Neanderthals: Acheulean, Middle Paleolithic (Middle Pleistocene)
  • Location: Within the city limits of Nice, France
  • Interpreted Purpose: Red deer, wild boar, and elephant bones and tools used to butcher animals obtained by hunting
  • Environment at Occupation: Beach, swampy area
  • Excavated: Henri de Lumley, 1960s

Stone Tools

Excavator Henry de Lumley identified several distinct Acheulean occupations at Terra Amata, where our hominin ancestor the Neanderthals lived on the beach, during Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 11, somewhere between 427,000 and 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: French archaeologist Patricia 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.

Microscopic study of the bones and their cutmarks (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 depressions from being banged (called 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 brought back from where they were killed or found to the beach—archaeologists call this behavior "schlepping," from the Yiddish word. 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 1,300 square feet (120 square meters). De Lumley identified about 30.5 ft (10 m) of deposits, and in addition to the large mammal bone remains, he reported evidence of hearths and huts, indicating the Neanderthals lived for quite some time on the beach.

Recent investigations of the assemblages reported by Anne-Marie Moigne and colleagues identified examples of bone retouchers in the Terra Amata assemblage (as well as other Early Pleistocene Neanderthal sites Orgnac 3, Cagny-l'Epinette and Cueva del Angel). Retouchers (or batons) are a type of bone tool known to have been used by later Neanderthals (during the Middle Paleolithic period MIS 7–3) to put the finishing touches on a stone tool. Retouchers are tools are not typically as frequently found in European sites in the Lower Paleolithic, but Moigne and colleagues argue that these represent the early stages of the later developed technology of soft-hammer percussion.

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