Category Archives: France

Grotte Chauvet’s Aurignacian dates strongly questioned

The famous rock art of the Cave of Lions (Grotte Chauvet, Ardèche) seems now not to be of such an early date as was claimed by Valladas et al. in 2001 but rather from the Gravettian and Solutrean periods, with more solid dates between 26,000 to 18,000 BP.
Jean Combier & Guy Jouve, New investigations into the cultural and stylistic identity of the Chauvet cave and its radiocarbon dating. L’Anthropologie 2014. Pay per view → LINK [doi:10.1016/j.anthro.2013.12.001]


The discovery of Chauvet cave, at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc (Ardèche), in 1994, was an important event for our knowledge of palaeolithic parietal art as a whole. Its painted and engraved figures, thanks to their number (425 graphic units), and their excellent state of preservation, provide a documentary thesaurus comparable to that of the greatest sites known, and far beyond what had already been found in the group of Rhône valley caves (Ardèche and Gard). But its study – when one places it in its natural regional, cultural and thematic framework – makes it impossible to see it as an isolated entity of astonishing precocity. This needs to be reconsidered, and the affinities that our research has brought to light are clearly incompatible with the very early age which has been attributed to it. And if one extends this examination to the whole of the Franco-Cantabrian domain, the conclusion is inescapable: although Chauvet cave displays some unique characteristics (like every decorated cave), it belongs to an evolved phase of parietal art that is far removed from the motifs of its origins (known from art on blocks and on shelter walls dated by stratigraphy to the Aurignacian, in France and Cantabrian Spain). The majority of its works are therefore to be placed, quite normally, within the framework of the well-defined artistic creations of the Gravettian and Solutrean. Moreover, this phase of the Middle Upper Palaeolithic (26,000–18,000) coincides with a particularly intensive and diversified local human occupation, unknown in earlier periods and far less dense afterwards in the Magdalenian. A detailed critique of the treatment of the samples subjected to AMS radiocarbon dating makes it impossible to retain the very early age (36,000 cal BP) attributed by some authors to the painted and engraved figures of Chauvet cave.


Neolithic and Chalcolithic demographics of Western and Northern Europe

Somehow I missed this important study on the Neolithic and Chalcolithic demographics of Europe, as inferred from the archaeological record (h/t Davidski):
Stephen Shennan et al., Regional population collapse followed initial agriculture booms in mid-Holocene Europe. Nature Communications 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:doi:10.1038/ncomms3486]


Following its initial arrival in SE Europe 8,500 years ago agriculture spread throughout the continent, changing food production and consumption patterns and increasing population densities. Here we show that, in contrast to the steady population growth usually assumed, the introduction of agriculture into Europe was followed by a boom-and-bust pattern in the density of regional populations. We demonstrate that summed calibrated radiocarbon date distributions and simulation can be used to test the significance of these demographic booms and busts in the context of uncertainty in the radiocarbon date calibration curve and archaeological sampling. We report these results for Central and Northwest Europe between 8,000 and 4,000 cal. BP and investigate the relationship between these patterns and climate. However, we find no evidence to support a relationship. Our results thus suggest that the demographic patterns may have arisen from endogenous causes, although this remains speculative.

The most interesting aspect is maybe that the (apparent) demographic changes are detailed for many regions of Europe, but first let’s see the general outlook for the whole area surveyed (Western and Northern Europe, Iberia excluded):

Figure 2: SCDPD-inferred population density change 10,000–4,000 cal. BP using all radiocarbon dates in the western Europe database.
Colored arrows and their annotations are mine.

I decided that it was important to mark the main cultural episodes for reference.
1st Neolithic refers to Impressed-Cardium and Linear Band Pottery cultures, which arrived almost simultaneously to Germany and France (of the surveyed areas), although the Rhône-Languedoc Neolithic is a few centuries earlier than the arrow, which has been standardized to 7500 BP.
Atlantic Neolithic refers to the quite belated arrival of Neolithic to Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe (standardized at 6000 BP). This process was quickly followed and tightly associated with the widespread cultural phenomenon of Dolmenic Megalithism. It is most interesting that the main deviation from the pattern of regular growth concentrates in this period and is clearly positive.
Corded Ware culture (Indoeuropean consolidation in Central and Northern Europe) affected only to Germany and Denmark-Scania within the surveyed regions. It was followed by a more widespread subcultural phenomenon known as Bell Beaker, which almost invariably cases manifests within pre-existent locally rooted cultures. Neither seems to be correlated with demographic expansions in the general overview.
Now let’s take a look at the regional graphs:

Figure 3: SCDPD-inferred population density change 8,000–4,000 cal. BP for each sub-region.
Colored arrows, excepted the blue ones (which mark the local first Neolithic), are mine and mark general pan-European initial chronologies (not local!) for Megalithism, Corded Ware and Bell Beaker in those regions where they had some clear influence.

Here we can appreciate that:
Atlantic Neolithic and its associated Megalithic phenomenon are clearly related to notable demographic expansions in Ireland, Scotland, South England, Denmark and Scania. Megalithic influence may also be associated with some more irregular growth in South and Central Germany but rather not in France nor West Germany. A contemporary weak and irregular growth in North Germany (Brandenburg, Mecklemburg and Schlewig-Holstein) may be correlated with Funnelbeaker (with roots in Denmark) and the first Kurgan development of Baalberge and successor cultures (with roots in Eastern Europe), which would eventually evolve into Corded Ware.
Corded Ware only seems related to clear demographic growth in Jutland (and less resolutely in Scania). Bell Beaker is only linked with clear demographic growth in Ireland (and much more weakly in South England and Central Germany), while elsewhere it is rather associated with decline.
For the exact extension of the various regions as defined for this study, see fig. 1 (map).
As provisional conclusion, it seems obvious to my eyes that the most important demographic growth processes were the various Neolithic cultures but that the Atlantic Neolithic (and associated Megalithism) was particularly dynamic. In contrast Indoeuropean-associated cultural phenomena had a much weaker impact, with some localized exceptions, and are generally associated with local demographic decline instead, at least judging from the archaeological record.
See also:

Rhône-Provence Bell Beaker

Just a brief note on two French language papers from a decade ago that have shown up in my alerts.
The most relevant one because of its wider scope is:
Olivier Lemercier, Muriel Pellissier & Yaramila Tchérémissinoff, Campaniforme et sépultures, au-delà du standard. La place du Campaniforme dans l évolution des sépultures du sud-est de la France au 3e millénaire avant notre ère. Proceedings of the International Conference held at the Cantonal Archaeology Museum (Sion, Switzerland), 2001. → available (with free registration) at

Abstract (only part in English)

Where are the famous Bell Beaker individual burials in the south east of France? What is the nature of the burials wherein we actually find Bell Beaker elements ? And what kind of Bell Beaker is it ? And also : where does the Bell Beakers stand in the evolution of the funeral architectures and rites between the end of the Middle Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age? Answering these questions, thanks to the presence of more than a hundred funeral sites in the area, would change our vision of the Bell Beakers fenomenon itself. These questions are also the occasion to present the diversity and the traditions of the funeral practices by the 3rd millenium BC.

I took some time to read it in spite of my limited skills at French (but it’s still Romance, so well… any educated Romance speaker can read it with some effort) and the overall conclusions are not too surprising: Bell Beaker is not only a burial thing, Bell Beaker appears in burial contexts of older local tradition, etc. 
The details and nuances are many more, of course. On one side the authors discern (much as it happens overall within European Bell Beaker) three groupings: 
  • Corded style in Ardèche
  • International style in the left margins of the Rhône
  • A local variant in the later period
Notice that the authors argue that both the Corded and International styles are roughly contemporary. I can’t judge this but, if real, it may mean a blow against the classical notion of Corded style being older and arriving to SW Europe via the Rhône. 
Another interesting aspect of the paper is that the authors argue for overall continuity of burial styles, which are varied:
  • individual burials with roots in early Neolithic
  • collective burials of both dolmenic-megalithic and cave typology
  • other rarer types, with a handful of examples each
Bell Beaker seems mostly related to collective burials, although in the BB period Megalithism seems to recede somewhat in favor of collective burials in caves, a tradition common in other parts of Europe, especially in the South and SW. This really casts all kind of doubts about BB in this region being able to be explained as some sort of migration from Central Europe (or anywhere else) because, unlike in this Indoeuropeanized area, BB individual burials as such are extremely rare; instead we must talk of BB elements inserted in local traditions of collective or “clannish” nature, just as we can see in Iberia and other Western areas where Indoeuropean influences was still non-existent. 
The other paper is:
Robin Furestier et al., 1974-2004 le site du Fortin-du-Saut (Châteauneuf-les-Martigues, Bouches-du-Rhône) et le Campaniforme 30 ans aprés. Congrès du Centennaire: Un siècle de construction du discours scientifique en Préhistoireavailable at (registration needed as well).
This is about a particular Bell Beaker site near Marseilles, whose typology seems mostly influenced by the Portuguese VNSP civilizational center. Otherwise there is other non-BB pottery without decoration and what seems locally rooted stone tools and arrow points.
If you are fluent in French and happen to find out any error in my interpretation, please feel free to correct me in comments, thanks in advance.

Screw stoppers of Upper Paleolithic Dordogne

While not really a novelty, I bet that most readers have never heard of this (I had no idea myself admittedly). David Sánchez discusses this week at his (Spanish language) blog Noticias de Prehistoria – Prehistoria al Día the existence of several most intriguing conic screw pieces found in Gravettian and Magdalenian sites from Dordogne (Aquitaine, French Republic), a district that (because of its great density of findings and cultural centrality for Middle and Late UP European prehistory) I have sometimes dubbed the Paleolithic Metropolis of Europe.

Drawing of two ivory stoppers from Combe-Capelle and Fourneau du Diable
(from Don’s Maps, ultimately from S. Lwoff 1968)

Stopper of bone
from Laugerie-Haute
What are these magnificent pieces of Paleolithic craftsmanship? Apparently they are nothing else that that waterskin stoppers. Don’s Maps suggest (scroll down) that the waterskin’s neck hole would be made with a long bone hollow piece (just get out the marrow and tie it tightly to the skin’s neck with a couple of thin ropes after performing two grooves on the external surface of the bone piece), then just apply the screw stopper forcing the bone (which is hard but somewhat flexible) to adapt to it. Naturally the inner groove would be created as you repeat the process once and again, surely having to push a little more each time (the bone tends to expand somewhat under the internal pressure).
Why are they conical and not cylindrical like modern ones? Surely because the same stopper (hard high quality work) was expected to serve many different waterskins, with different neck sizes. Also the very process of creation of the neck’s perfect fit requires of an initial process of expansion for which a cylindrical stopper was not fit.
It never ceases to amaze the ingenuity and creativity of our Paleolithic ancestors, right?

Maps of lamp usage in Paleolithic SW Europe

Illustration by Arturo Asensio
Decorating Altamira Cave
As I have briefly mentioned before David Sánchez has a most interesting series of articles (in Spanish language) these days, at his blog Noticias de Prehistoria – Prehistoria al Día, dealing with the usage of oil lamps in SW Europe (France, Iberian Peninsula) in the Upper Paleolithic. If you are familiar with Spanish language (or willing to use an online translator), you can read them at the following links: PART 1, PART 2 and PART 3 (update: part 4 is now also online).
To be most synthetic I will essentially borrow the excellent maps which shall give us a glimpse of the spread and time frame of this illumination fashion in the region:

Lamps found in France with chronology and type of site (Beaune & White 1993)
Lamps found in Iberia (by David Sánchez)

It must be mentioned, following the original articles, that the lamps of Iberia have all been found inside caves (while in France the locations are more diverse) and also nearly all them belong to the Magdalenian period. The exceptions are Bolinkoba (8), which is from a Solutrean chronology, La Trinidad de Ardales (1), which has no context, and a possible ill-documented lamp from Lezetxiki (14), originally argued to be of either Aurignacian or Mousterian context. 
Even if you don’t understand Spanish, I would suggest to take a look at the original articles for the many illustrations of a varied array of lamps.

Alert: Foissac cave threatened by pig farm expansion

The expansion of an existent pig farm from 1000 to 8000 heads per annum threatens to contaminate the cave, inhabited in the Chalcolithic and Paleolithic, with pig manure.
Foissac (Aveyron department, Languedoc) is particularly wealthy in burial, pottery and other Chalcolithic remains, which are preserved in situ because of exceptional conservation conditions (it was dug up by F. Rouzaud, M.-A. Garcia and H. Duday between 1978 and 1988). 
More recently (2006) a branch of the same cave was found to have Paleolithic rock art, which would be at risk by this farm. 
There is an ongoing public inquest (ending on September 27) which has been given no publicity. However you may want to write to the authorities at the following address:
Monsieur Le Commissaire Enquêteur
Mairie de Causse et Diège, Loupiac
There is also an online petition that you may sign.
More information (in French language in principle) at:
Sébastien du Fayet de la Tour :
mobile phone : 06 11 75 97 02
Grotte de Foissac : 05 65 64 60 52

Source: Hominidé

Timeline of the conquest of Navarre by Castile 1512-21

About these days some 500 years ago, the Kingdom of Castile decided to put to use the silver robbed to the Native Americans into a new military campaign. This time it was Navarre, the state of the Basques.
Navarre and associated states c. 1512
The Castilian-Aragonese conquest
In mid-June, a huge army under the command of the always infamous Duke of Alba, was concentrated at Vitoria, conquered in 1200. Meanwhile the English, then allied with Castile, had posted troops at Bayonne to curtail any French attempt of aid. The Castilian army marched without difficulties through Burunda and Arakil and on July 23rd, camped outside Pamplona, at Arazuri.
Unable to defend the city against such an oversized conquest force, the Navarrese monarchs went to their northern possessions in Gascony (Bearn). The city surrendered and on July 25th the invaders took possession with all the religious paraphernalia they styled.
After conquering Pamplona, a second invading army from Aragon (in dynastic union with Castile already) commanded by the Archbishop of Zaragoza, Alfonso, illegitimate son of King Ferdinand, occupied the Ribera (Erribera) and put siege to Tudela (Tutera) on August 14th. The city resisted for a month and only surrendered, on September 9th,upon oath that the traditional charters (fueros, laws) would be honored by the invaders.
Reconstruction of the historical walls of Tudela on a modern photo
First liberation attempt
John of Albret (King consort) finally mustered a diverse army made up of Navarrese, Gascons and Albanian and German mercenaries, which set up march at Pau (Bearn, part of the lands of the crown back then) on October 15th, commanded by Francis, Dauphin of France and Duke of Angouleme, with King Jean as sub-commander. They expelled the Duke of Alba from Donibane Garazi (St. Jean Pie-de-Port) and arrived to Pamplona on October 26th but could not capture the city.
When the winter set on, the liberation army retreated before the snow would close the passes.
The formal annexation
The Court (Parliament) of Navarre was called by the invader on March 23rd and, under obvious pressure, they swore loyalty to the invader.
Meanwhile the Castilians occupied again the Low Navarre (now under French rule) taking hostages and calling district Court to force the county to also swear loyalty to the occupant.
There was some hope of a peaceful resolution with a generational change among the monarchs: Francis I, who had personally commanded the Navarrese liberation army, became new King of France, while Charles of Burgundy (would-be Emperor Charles V) also showed signs of not being too interested in holding Navarre by force.
This pushed Ferdinand of Aragon (regent of Castile) to take the decision of annexing Navarre to Castile, formally suppressing its distinctiveness as independent kingdom. The formal ratification of this matter was done in the city of Burgos, Castile, before the Court of Castile on June 11th 1515. Navarre as such was not even asked.
However the Navarrese Kingdom retained all formal and legal distinctions, including parliament and tribunals, as had been allowed previously to the provinces formed from Western Navarre in 1200. It is at this point when Navarre is (forcibly) made a semi-autonomous part of Castile (Spain since the 18th century).
Second liberation attempt
Upon the death of Ferdinand of Aragon (January 23rd 1516), there were uprisings in is domains, circumstance that fueled a new attempt of liberation by John of Albret. The invasion attempt crossing the Pyrenees was ambushed at Isaba however and the commander, Marshall Peter of Navarre, made prisoner. He would die in strange circumstancesTM in 1522, still a prisoner.
Castile was then under transitional control of the strongman cardinal-regent Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, who decided to punish the separatist feelings of the Navarrese people by means of political persecution. The most visible element was the dismantling of all kind of fortifications, leaving towns and villages undefended.
The very walls of Pamplona were reconstructed anew with the Machiavellan detail of making them clearly separate from the homes, so the citizens could not take them again from inside. More than a fortified city, Pamplona was now a prison, with walls conceived more for defense against the citizens than against any possible invader.
Wall of Pamplona
Third liberation attempt
Andrew of Foix, Lord of Asparrot
Meanwhile in Bearn, Henry II Zangotzarra became king of an occupied realm. Spanish historians, always so partial, treat him as “French” and “Prince of Bearn”, even if he was not just the legitimate monarch but also born in Sangüesa (Zangoza), and his campaigns as “French invasions”.
Castile was then (1521) under the popular revolt of the Comuneros, who demanded from Charles V respect to the traditional law and freedoms, making the occasion ideal for an attempt of liberation of Navarre.
Henry mustered an army of mostly Navarrese and Gascons, which was put under the command of Andrew of Foix, Lord of Asparrot (also known as Asparrós). The Comuneros had just been defeated at Villalar (April 23rd) when the campaign began (May 10th).
Upon the arrival of the liberation army, Pamplona surrendered and proclaimed Henry II as true monarch. Only a castle outside the walls resisted and was bombed. Among those inside was Iñigo of Loiola (later known as Ignatius) a Gipuzkoan professional soldier working for Castile… before and after the injury.
The liberation march was welcomed everywhere in Navarre but then Asparrot committed what is considered a key error: licensed much of the infantry and marched against Logroño (which had been Navarrese centuries earlier). The Castilian counter-attack pushed the Navarrese army towards Pamplona, with the final showdown happening at Noain on June 30th. 6000 people lost their lives in that battle.
There was still some resistance, notably in Baztan, where a Navarrese garrison resisted bravely in the castle of Amaiur, now a ruin with a monolith.
Monolith of Amaiur
The Northern tip of Navarre, known as Low Navarre, remained independent. Lacking any cities however, the Court installed itself in Pau, Bearn, where it would be a center of the Huguenot camp, eventually leading Henry III to the throne of Paris (where is known as Henry IV).
It was also a center of Basque and Gascon literature, making of a military defeat the seed of a long ethno-cultural and political resistance with the more than occasional popular and military uprising. Up to this day.
500 years of occupation, 500 years of resistance.
See also: A history of the Basque Wars: chapter I and chapter II (still have to write the 3rd part)