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Saint-Césaire

Neanderthals of the Middle and Upper Paleolithic

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Location of Saint-Césaire in France

Location of Saint-Césaire in France

Eric Gaba

The archaeological site of Saint-Césaire (sometimes spelled St. Césaire and occasionally called La Roche-à-Pierrot in older literature) is a rockshelter in the Charente-Maritimes department of southwestern France. The site is located at the base of a limestone cliff, which had been the target of modern quarrying activity. The site includes multiple layers of Middle Paleolithic and Upper Paleolithic periods, including transitional layers and prehistoric Mousterian, Châtelperronian, and Aurignacian components.

Stratigraphy

  • Evolved Aurignacian (Layer EJM)
  • Aurignacian I (EJF)
  • Proto-Aurignacian (EJOsup)
  • Châtelperronian? (EJOPsup)
  • Châtelperronian (EJOPinf)
  • Mousterian (EGPF)

Controversy at Saint-Césaire

In level EJOP, a nearly complete Neanderthal skeleton was identified, in apparently direct association with a Châtelperronian tool kit, which was up to that point considered made strictly by early modern humans (EMH), not Neanderthals. When it was discovered in 1979, the Saint-Césaire Neanderthal skeleton created an instant sensation, because up to that point, Neanderthals were considered more or less incapable of creating such complex stone tools. Today, Saint-Césaire is considered evidence of co-existence of EMH and Neanderthals, a coexistence that doesn't seem to have been consistently pleasant.

Most important was the partial Neanderthal skeleton in a secondary burial. A secondary burial means that the individual died elsewhere and was brought back to the cave for interment. This skeleton was direct-dated to 36,000 years ago (BP), making St. Cesaire one of the most recent Neanderthal sites found to date, although not as young as that of Gorham's Cave.

Reconsidering St. Cesaire

Reanalyses of the stratigraphic record at St. Cesaire have revealed some uncertainty into the Neanderthal burial's association with the Chatelperronnian tool kit. The stone tool analysis of the layer in which the skeleton was retrieved (EJOP) is split into two: the lower (inf) and upper (sup) segments, and the burial seems to be in both. Stone tools in the layer contains about 35% Levallois (Upper Paleolithic) and 65% Aurignacian (Lower Paleolithic), which suggests that the layers are mixed. In addition, some scholars have hypothesized that the Neanderthal burial represents a pit burial, excavated from the EJOsup into the EJOinf older layer.

If that's correct, it sheds doubt on the connection between Neanderthals and Chatelperronian, not the date of the skeleton.

Archaeology at St. Cesaire

St. Cesaire was discovered by French archaeologist François Lévêque in 1979, and excavated over the next 12 years. Follow up studies of the stone tools and skeletal material has continued ever since. Stable isotope analysis of the human remains suggests that the Neanderthal residents at Saint-Césaire relied primarily on large-bodied herbivores, including woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, and to a lesser degree, reindeer.

Sources

This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology, and the Guide to Prehistoric Europe. See the Guide to the Middle Paleolithic for additional information.

Bar-Yosef O, and Bordes J-G. 2010. Who were the makers of the Châtelperronian culture? Journal of Human Evolution 59(5):586-593.

Bocherens H, Drucker DG, Billiou D, Patou-Mathis M, and Vandermeersch B. 2005. Isotopic evidence for diet and subsistence pattern of the Saint-Césaire I Neanderthal: review and use of a multi-source mixing model. Journal of Human Evolution 49(1):71-87.

Gargett RH. 1999. Middle Palaeolithic burial is not a dead issue: the view from Qafzeh, Saint-Césaire, Kebara, Amud, and Dederiyeh. Journal of Human Evolution 37(1):27-90.

Morin E, Tsanova T, Sirakov N, Rendu W, Mallye J-B, and Lévêque F. 2005. Bone refits in stratified deposits: testing the chronological grain at Saint-Césaire. Journal of Archaeological Science 32(7):1083-1098.

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