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Guide to the Châtelperronian

Middle Paleolithic to Upper Paleolithic Transition in Europe

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Personal Ornaments from Grotte du Renne

Personal ornaments from Chatelperonnian Grotte du Renne made of perforated and grooved teeth (1–6, 11), bones (7–8, 10) and a fossil (9); red (12–14) and black (15–16) colorants bearing facets produced by grinding; bone awls (17–23).

Caron et al. 2011, PLoS ONE.

The Châtelperronian period refers to one of five stone tool industries identified within the Upper Paleolithic period of Europe (ca 45,000-20,000 years ago). Once thought the earliest of the five industries, the Châtelperronian is today recognized as roughly coeval with or perhaps somewhat later than than the Aurignacian period: both are associated with the Middle Paleolithic to Upper Paleolithic transition, ca. 45,000-33,000 years ago. During that transition, the last Neanderthals in Europe died out, the result of a not-necessarily-peaceful cultural transition of European ownership from the long-established Neanderthal residents to the new influx of early modern humans from Africa.

When first described and defined in the early twentieth century, the Châtelperronian was believed to be the work of early modern humans (then called Cro Magnon), who, it was thought had descended directly from Neanderthals. The split between Middle and Upper Paleolithic is a distinct one, with great advances in the range of stone tool types and also with raw materials--the Upper Paleolithic period has tools and objects made of bone, teeth, ivory and antler, none of which was seen in the Middle Paleolithic. The change is technology is today associated with the entrance of early modern humans from Africa into Europe.

However, the discovery of Neanderthals at Saint Cesaire (aka La Roche a Pierrot) and Grotte du Renne (aka Arcy-sur-Cure) in direct association with Châtelperronian artifacts, led to the original debates: who made the Châtelperronian tools?

What's in a Châtelperronian Toolkit?

Châtelperronian stone industries are a blend of earlier tool types from the Middle Paleolithic Mousterian and Upper Paleolithic Aurignacian style tool types. These include denticulates, distinctive side scrapers (called racloir châtelperronien) and endscrapers. One characteristic stone tool found on Châtelperronian sites are "backed" blades, tools made on flint chips which have been shaped with abrupt retouch. Châtelperronian blades were made from a large, thick flake or block that were prepared in advance, in distinct comparison to later Aurignacian stone tool kits which were based on more extensively worked prismatic cores.

Although the lithic materials at Châtelperronian sites often include stone tools similar to the earlier Mousterian occupations, in some sites, an extensive collection of tools were produced on ivory, shell and bone: these types of tools are not found in Mousterian sites at all. Important bone collections have been found at three sites in France: Grotte du Renne at Arcy sur-Cure, Saint Cesaire and Quinçay. At Grotte du Renne, the bone tools included awls, bi-conical points, tubes made of bird bones and pendants, and sawed ungulate antlers and picks. Some personal ornaments have been found at these sites, some of which are stained with red ochre: all of these are evidence of what archaeologists call modern human behaviors or behavioral complexity.

The stone tools led to the assumption of cultural continuity, with some scholars well into the 1990s arguing that humans in Europe had evolved from Neanderthals. Subsequent archaeological and DNA research has overwhelmingly indicated that early modern humans in fact evolved in Africa, and then migrated into Europe and mixed with the Neanderthal natives. The parallel discoveries of bone tools and other behavioral modernity at Chatelperronian and Aurignacian sites, not to mention radiocarbon dating evidence has led to a realignment of the early Upper Paleolithic sequence.

How Did They Learn That?

The major mystery of the Châtelperronian--assuming that it does indeed represent Neanderthals, and there certainly seems to be ample proof of that--is how did they acquire new technologies just at the point when the new African immigrants arrived in Europe? When and how that happened--when the African emigrants turned up in Europe and when and how the Europeans learned to make bone tools and backed scrapers--is a matter for some debate. Did the Neanderthals imitate or learn from or borrow from the Africans when they began using sophisticated stone and bone tools; or were they innovators, who happened to learn the technique about the same time?

Archaeological evidence at sites such as Kostenki in Russia and Grotta del Cavallo in Italy has pushed back the arrival of early modern humans to about 45,000 years ago. They used a sophisticated tool kit, complete with bone and antler tools and personal decorative objects, called collectively Aurignacian. Evidence is also strong that Neanderthals first appeared in Europe about 800,000 years ago, and they relied on primarily stone tools; but about 40,000 years ago, they may have adopted or invented bone and antler tools and personal decorative items. Whether that was separate invention or borrowing remains to be determined.

Chatelperronian Sites

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Upper Paleolithic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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

Coolidge FL, and Wynn T. 2004. A cognitive and neurophysical perspective on the Chatelperronian. Journal of Archaeological Research 60(4):55-73.

Discamps E, Jaubert J, and Bachellerie F. 2011. Human choices and environmental constraints: deciphering the variability of large game procurement from Mousterian to Aurignacian times (MIS 5-3) in southwestern France. Quaternary Science Reviews 30(19-20):2755-2775.

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