Paleolithic Pilgrimage

Sites of Les Eyzies (M. Peyrony, in Munro 1912)
Sites of Les Eyzies (M. Peyrony, in Munro 1912)
By Kathryn Ranhorn
February 19, 2014

In southwestern France, hours outside of Paris on the way to Bordeaux, lies a small village called Les Eyzies. Haven’t heard of it? Perhaps you have heard of Cro Magnon, Le Moustier, or La Ferassie? These are just a few of the prehistoric sites in the 14.5-square-mile village, and there are dozens more. Lascaux is a stone’s throw away in a nearby village. It is no surprise then, that this region is regarded by many as the “Mecca of Prehistory.”

As an Africanist archaeologist, I’ve researched at some amazing sites: I started out at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania when I was an undergraduate. Since then I have worked at Olorgesailie, Kenya, visited chimpanzees and Jane Goodall at Gombe, and most recently spent six weeks in Turkana. But I never quite understood the French perspective on le paleolithique.

France is really where the study of prehistory all began, when Boucher de Perthes first discovered flint artifacts associated with extinct animal bones in the Somme Valley in 1846. In the 150+ years since, as paleoanthropology emerged as an independent discipline, France was the central backdrop. That history merits a book in itself, and unfortunately I don’t have the space to cover it here (but see Trigger 1989 for a proper review). Suffice it to say that a trip to France should be a requirement for any student of Paleolithic archaeology.

I was honored to take part in the biennial flint knapping workshop in Les Eyzies (“lay zayzee”), organized by researchers Jacques Pelegrin and Pierre-Jean Texier at the University of Bordeaux PACEA (De La Préhistoire à l’Actuel Culture, Environnement et Anthropologie). Graduate students just like me, from 13 countries, came to this small village to learn something integral to Paleolithic archaeology—how to flint knap. Why go to trouble of learning a Paleolithic technology you may ask? Simply put, if we are ever to make sense of the patterns seen in stone artifacts and the behavioral implications of those patterns, it is important to first understand how such patterns come to be, that is, how stone tools are manufactured.

Figure 1. Jacques Pelegrin teaching us how to standardize blade production with indirect percussion.

Believe it or not, making Stone Age tools is incredibly difficult. You may be able to knock off a single sharp flake, assuming that you choose a suitable piece of raw material, grab a proper hammer stone, find an acute edge, and strike at the correct angle. But even once you get the hang of that, can you do it in a controlled way and remove flakes in a pattern? Can you visualize five removals into the future so that the final flake is of a specific shape and size? It’s not unlike playing a game of chess in three dimensions.

The researchers at PACEA are rock stars (pun intended) and watching their effortless production of tools similar to the ones I find in the ground is a fascinating and moving experience.  Artifacts recovered from archaeological sites can feel divorced from purpose and meaning until you realize the complicated process involved in their manufacture.  Flint knapping can be practiced as a hobby, but for researchers like me it is a useful tool for understanding the past.

Flint knapping produces repeatable and predictable patterns. If you have ever seen a bullet hole in a window, you have seen conchoidal fracture. The same principles that form ripples in the glass are the same principles that leave measurable signatures on stone tools. Fracture mechanics, and therefore physics, is at the root of lithic analysis. A common result of the process of knapping stone is called the bulb of percussion, which forms the instant energy is transferred from the hammerstone to the rock being flaked, producing a palpable bump on the underside of the flake.  Understanding the interplay of these fracture mechanics and stone tool morphology is the first step in creating testable hypotheses about ancient artifacts, and I was lucky to get a crash course in Les Eyzies.

After the workshop I stayed in Les Eyzies and excavated 22,000-year-old sediments in an Upper Paleolithic rock shelter called Abri Pataud. This is the same site where my adviser, Alison Brooks, carried out her dissertation research under Hallam Movius. The stratigraphy of the cave spans over three meters deep and 47,000 years. Excavating in a cave is quite different from the open-air sites in Africa; wearing a scarf and jacket, we etched away sediment 1 centimeter at a time with dental picks. It is not uncommon to find evidence of individual hearths, including charred bone in association with long (~10cm) blades, similar to the ones I learned to make in the workshop.

Figure 2. Abri Pataud.

While stone tool making and excavating is surely a great way to spend the day, the highlight of my French adventure was more colorful: Paleolithic cave art. The world-famous Lascaux is closed to the public, but dozens of other local paintings and engravings abound. I visited Rouffignac, Cap Blanc, Grotte du Sorcier, Abri du Poisson, Les Combarelles, and the most magnificent of all, Font de Gaume. It was not always easy to gain access to the caves, and we were usually only allowed to stay inside for 30 minutes due to conservation purposes.