The Grotte du Renne (Reindeer Cave) is a karst cave, one of several in a network of caves opening out of the left bank of the Arcy-sur-Cure, in the Yonne department of France some 200 km south of Paris. Grotte du Renne has rich Châtelperronian and Aurignacian assemblages and provides a window into the long-running debate concerning the Middle Paleolithic to Upper Paleolithic transitionin Europe, and the respective roles of Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans (EMH) during that period.
The importance of Grotte du Renne lies primarily in its Châtelperronian levels, which included a stunning array of stone and bone tools and personal ornaments in association with fossil Neanderthal remains. Thus, Grotte du Renne is one of the few sites (along with Saint-Cesaire) where Neanderthals have been associated with modern behavioral complexity. As such, it remains somewhat controversial.
Archaeologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan first excavated the site in the 1950s, and his work has been recently critically scrutinized. A well-preserved section located at the center of the cave was excavated in 1998, using methods developed since Leroi-Gourhan's excavations. This latest research supports Leroi-Gourhan's contention of the presence of undisturbed Châtelperronian levels. However, radiocarbon dates taken on the levels contain numerous outliers, leading some researchers to argue that the level is mixed, and that the association of Neanderthals with sophisticated tools and ornaments is a result of Upper Paleolithic intrusions into the Châtelperronian layers.
Chronology at Grotte du Renne
In four meters (13 feet) of deposit, scholars have identified 15 stratified layers associated with Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods, numbered from top to bottom. A suite of radiocarbon dates were taken at the site, primarily on bone collagen, and reported in 2010 (Higham et al.)
- Gravettian (Layers 4-6, ~20,100 RCYBP, 1 date)
- Aurignacian (Layer 7, 30,000-32,000 RCYBP, 2 dates)
- Châtelperonnian (Layers 8, 32,000-33,000 RCYBP, 4 dates)
- Châtelperonnian (Layer 9, 15,700-45,300 RCYBP, 3 dates)
- Châtelperonnian (Layer 10, 15,700-38,300 RCYBP, 10 dates)
- Mousterian (Layers 11-14, 28,000-39,400 RCYBP, 7 dates)
Artifacts from Grotte du Renne
Fossil skeletal remains recovered from the Châtelperonnian component of the site included 29 teeth and a temporal bone, all of which have been identified as Neanderthal, although some debate lingers concerning that as well.
Tools recovered from the site include fifty bone awls from the Chatelperronian and another nine from the Aurignacian levels. Worked and grooved animal bone, antlers, and ivory have been found within the Châtelperonnian layers, in the form of personal ornaments, rings, pierced animal teeth and ivory pendants. Some of the bone tools are decorated, and some are stained with ochre or other colorants.
The stone tool assemblage from the Châtelperronian layers include Levallois flakes, Châtelperron points and convergent sidescrapers (sometimes referred in the literature as racloir châtelperronien), Dufour bladelets and unretouched blanks.
Neanderthals and Grotte du Renne
The undisputable evidence about Grotte du Renne is the presence of artifacts which are comparatively complex for most Châtelperronian occupations, and the associated presence of Neanderthal teeth. The problematic part is the radiocarbon dates, and the rarity of the complexity. Only two other sites have evidence of this level of behavioral modernity (ochre, personal ornamentation, bone points) associated with Neanderthals, both in France: one is Saint-Cesaire (Charente-Maritime department), the other is Quinçay (Vienne department). Both are also controversial.
The problematic parts have led scholars to scrutinize the excavations to determine whether the layer truly is only Châtelperronian, or a mixture of Middle and Upper Paleolithic components.
Bailey SE, and Hublin J-J. 2006. Dental remains from the Grotte du Renne at Arcy-sur-Cure (Yonne). Journal of Human Evolution 50(5):485-508.
Bailey S, and Hublin J. 2006. Did Neanderthals make the Châtelperronian assemblage from La Grotte du Renne (Arcy-sur-Cure, France)? In: Hublin J-J, Harvati K, and Harrison T, editors. Neanderthals Revisited: New Approaches and Perspectives. Netherlands: Springer. p 191-209.
Caron F, d'Errico F, Del Moral P, Santos F, and Zilhão J. 2011. The Reality of Neandertal Symbolic Behavior at the Grotte du Renne, Arcy-sur-Cure, France. PLoS ONE 6(6):e21545.
d'Errico F, Julien M, Liolios D, Vanhaeren M, and Baffier D. 2003. Many awls in our argument. Bone tool manufacture and use in the Châtelperronian and Aurignacian levels of the Grotte du Renne at Arcy-sur-Cure. In: Zilhão J, and d'Errico F, editors. The Chronology of the Aurignacian and of the Transitional Complexes. Lisbon: Instituto Português de Arqueologia. p 240–270.
Higham T, Jacobi R, Julien M, David F, Basell L, Wood R, Davies W, and Ramsey CB. 2010. Chronology of the Grotte du Renne (France) and implications for the context of ornaments and human remains within the Châtelperronian. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(47):20234-20239.
Mellars P. 2010. Neanderthal symbolism and ornament manufacture: The bursting of a bubble? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(47):20147-20148.
White R. 2001. Personal ornaments from the Grotte du Renne at Arcy-sur-Cure. Athena Review 2(4).