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Athena Review  Vol.2, no.4:   Neanderthals Meet Modern Humans

Personal Ornaments from the Grotte du Renne at Arcy-sur-Cure

by Randall White

Department of Anthropology, New York University

The debate on the relationship between Neanderthals and early modern humans (Cro-magnons) has often centered on human cognition and ability for symbolic thought. We feel fairly certain that early modern humans had such abilities, based on their sophisticated artwork, and on projections backward from ourselves; could their lack in Neanderthals have given us the adaptive “edge” that lead to our own continued survival over other early human populations? In an attempt to challenge this theory, researchers have looked for evidence which may indicate that Neanderthals, too, engaged in symbolic activities

The Châtelperronian and Aurignacian site of Grotte du Renne (fig.1) at Arcy-sur-Cure in central France (Leroi-Gourhan 1958, 1961; Movius 1969) has often been cited as yielding evidence for Neanderthal symbolic activities, especially in the production and use of personal ornamentation. Here, I analyze the personal ornaments attributed to the Aurignacian (level VII; 32,000-33,000 years old) and Châtelperronian (levels VIII, IX and X; 32,000-45,000 years old) with respect to ornaments from early Upper Paleolithic sites across Europe (White 1989, 1992, 1993a,b, 1995, 1998, 2001 in press).

Fig. 1: Map of Upper Paleolithic sites with cave art and / or personal ornaments (underlined sites are mentioned in text; after Marshack 1972, and Mellars in Bar-Yosef and Pilbeam 2000).

Excavation and Stratigraphy at Grotte du Renne: Like all caves and rock shelters, Grotte du Renne is a geologically and stratigraphically complex site. In modern excavations, such complexity is controlled by precise sedimentological and micromorphological analyses, as well as artifact re-fitting, that focus on site formation processes. The Grotte du Renne was excavated between 1948 and 1966, when such stratigraphic controls simply did not meet today’s standards, and recovery and recording techniques were less than meticulous.

Grotte du Renne’s first excavations were conducted in 1949 by Leroi-Gourhan and revealed 14 stratigraphic Aurignacian and Châtelperronian units (For a primer on Middle and Upper Paleolithic toolkits, see Athena Review Vol. 2 no. 4 pg 41.). Although Leroi-Gourhan's work was a pioneering effort to recover the archaeological record to allow paleo-ethnological observations, it was undertaken at a time when excavation techniques in general were rudimentary. Archaeological levels were presumed to have stratigraphic integrity and therefore to be a direct, unmodified reflection of prehistoric behavior. Modern research in cave and rock shelter contexts show such assumptions to be generally false. If Grotte du Renne at Arcy-sur-Cure were excavated today, we would know with certainty whether there had been disturbance and mixture of the Aurignacian and Châtelperronian levels; unfortunately we cannot go back in time to correct these earlier missteps.

Some observations about the ornaments from Grotte du Renne: There has been considerable scholarly discussion on whether various ornaments from Grotte du Renne were manufactured and used by Neanderthals or modern humans. Incredibly important in our interpretation of Grotte du Renne is an understanding of how extremely unique was the discovery of such an abundance of ornaments in Châtelperronian levels. Indeed, only one other site, Quinçay in SW France, has produced ornaments from an undisputed Châtelperronian context, and these consisted of only four pierced teeth.

Fig. 2: Tooth prepared by "rainurage" from Level VII, Grotte du Renne.

A second observation relevant to our interpretation of the site is that the techniques and raw materials used to produce the personal ornaments attributed to the Châtelperronian at the Grotte du Renne are not exclusive to the Châtelperronian. They are in fact widespread in the Aurignacian across western and central Europe (For descriptions of ornament raw material frequencies and modification techniques, see Athena Review Vol. 2 no. 4 pg 42-43). For instance, the technique of “rainurage,” because it is well represented in the Châtelperronian levels at the Grotte du Renne, has often been thought to be peculiar to the Châtelperronian. In actuality, it is a widespread, albeit minor, technique in the Aurignacian (fig.2) and is represented in the early Aurignacian sites of Abri Cellier (SW France); Grotte des Hyènes, Brassempouy (SW France); Abri Blanchard (SW France); Abri Fumane (Italy); and Geißenklösterle (S. Germany). It is noteworthy, however, that these raw materials and techniques of modification occur in frequencies at Arcy-sur-Cure that are different from those in the Aurignacian at large.

Certain ivory ornaments from level X at Grotte du Renne have received particular attention (fig. 3). These ivory ring fragments and beads have direct counterparts in the Aurignacian sites of Spy and Trou-Magrite (Otte 1979) in Belgium. Recent, modern excavations at Trou-Magrite (Otte and Straus 1995) show no evidence for Châtelperronian deposits and it is therefore reasonable to conclude that the objects concerned originated in the well-documented Aurignacian levels at this Belgian site.

In fact, a highly finished ivory pendant and several fragments of other finished ivory pendants are attributed to Aurignacian level VII at the Grotte du Renne. Careful microscopic and metric examination of these compared to the ivory rings that have been attributed to the Châtelperronian suggest that the latter may be rough-outs (i.e. early manufacture stages) for the production of the pendants attributed to the Aurignacian (fig. 4). If this interpretation holds, it indicates significant inter-level movement of objects by unknown processes.

Fig. 3: Perforated fox canine from Level X, Grotte du Renne

Relationship Between Châtelperronian and Aurignacian Ornaments and their Manufacturers: Two direct observations concerning the Arcy personal ornaments may help to choose the most probable explanation for the ornaments found at Grotte du Renne. First, that the Level VIII, IX and X ornaments fall within the range of techniques and raw material choices known for the thousands of ornaments known from Aurignacian contexts. Second, that certain objects in Châtelperronian Level X may be rough-outs for finished objects in Aurignacian Level VII. Both these observations point to little significant difference between the ornament assemblages in Châtelperronian and Aurignacian levels at Grotte du Renne. This may indicate, in turn, that the Châtelperronian and Aurignacian ornament assemblages from the site were one and the same; therefore it is likely that they were produced by the same people.

More generally, it seems obvious to me, based on the numerous early Aurignacian dates now at hand, that on a European scale, the Aurignacian precedes the Châtelperronian by several thousand years, before the two come into co-existence. We only begin to see ornaments in Châtelperronian contexts once there is a widespread Aurignacian presence in the same or contiguous regions. I therefore find it difficult to believe that the known Châtelperronian ornaments are generally precursors to those of the Aurignacian. Moving eastward in Europe, we find significant numbers of ornaments in initial Upper Paleolithic levels that pre-date the Châtelperronian. For example, pierced fox and wolf teeth have been recovered at the site of Bacho Kiro in Bulgaria, where they date to before 43,000 BP.

Moreover, it seems implausible to me that, after hundreds of thousands of years in which personal ornaments were not part of the European cultural repertoire, that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons independently and simultaneously invented personal ornaments manufactured from the same raw materials and using precisely the same techniques (D'Errico et al 1998). In my opinion, the archeological data, especially radiocarbon dates from numerous Aurignacian and Châtelperronian contexts, are more supportive of the notion that the impetus for personal ornaments, and the techniques underlying them, came from expanding groups of Aurignacians for whom personal ornaments were commonplace.

Thus saying, I wish to clarify that I am in no way opposed to the concept that Neanderthals manufactured ornaments. My position for many years (most strongly stated in White 1982) has been that the so-called Upper Paleolithic revolution reflects social rather than biological changes.

Although I find it probable that the Châtelperronians did not independently conceive of the production and consumption of personal ornaments, this does not imply that I believe that Neanderthals lacked the cognitive abilities to do so. I reject linking an acculturation model to the presumption of cognitively handicapped Neanderthals and propose that we focus instead on the quite different evolutionary trajectories of the Mousterian Neanderthal and the Aurignacian Cro-Magnons. The Neanderthals operated successfully in harsh European glacial environments over hundreds of thousands of years, apparently with little or no development of preservable symbolic devices. To me, this minimum of symbolic intervention was probably more a matter of fundamental social differences and longstanding cultural tradition (trajectory) than of cognitive capacity and such symbol use was not typically part of their very successful adaptive strategy.

Fig. 4: Near complete ivory ring from Level X, Grotte du Renne (exterior diameter: 29 mm).

Unfortunately, the analysis of ornaments from Grotte du Renne has little possibility of helping us understand these larger questions of Neanderthal cognition and symbolic behavior. It is often said that archaeology is an unforgiving and destructive process. Once excavated, sites can never be put back together. In the absence of more precise taphonomic and sedimentological observations at the Grotte du Renne, it is entirely possible that this key site may never be able to respond adequately to the question of symbol-use by Neanderthals. No amount of journalistic enthusiasm for this subject justifies giving more scientific credibility to a now fifty-year-old excavation than is warranted.

Abridged from the full-length article by Randall White in Athena Review, Vol.2, no.4 (pp.41-46).


D'Errico, F., J. Zilhao, M. Julien, D. Baffier, and J. Pelegrin. 1998. “The Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition at Arcy-sur-Cure.” Current Anthropology, 39: 1-44.

Leroi-Gourhan, A. 1958. “Étude des restes humains fossiles provenant des grottes d'Arcy-sur-Cure (Yonne).” Annales de Paléontologie, 44: 87-148.

Leroi-Gourhan, A. 1961. “Les fouilles d'Arcy-sur-Cure (Yonne).” Gallia Préhistoire, 4, p.3-16.

Movius, H. 1969. “The Châtelperronian in French archaeology: the evidence of Arcy-sur-Cure.” Antiquity, 43: 111-123.

Otte, M. 1979. “Le Paléolithique supérieur ancien en Belgique.” Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, monographie d'archéologie nationale, Bruxelles.

Otte, M. et L. Straus, 1995. Trou Magrite. ERAUL, Liège.

White, R. 1989. “Production complexity and standardisation in early Aurignacian bead and pendant manufacture: Evolutionary implications.” In The Human Revolution: Behavioural and Biological Perspectives on the Origins of Modern Humans. C. Stringer and P. Mellars (eds.). Edinburgh University Press: 366-390.

White, R. 1992. “Beyond art: toward an understanding of the origins of material representation in Europe.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 21, p.407-431.

White, R. 1993a. “A social and technological view of Aurignacian and Châtelperronian personal ornaments in France.” In El Origen del Hombre Moderno en el Suroeste de Europa. ed. V. Cabrera Valdès. Madrid: Ministerio de Educacion y Ciencia, 327-357.

White, R. 1993b. “Technological and social dimensions of ‘Aurignacian-age’ body ornaments across Europe.” In Before Lascaux: The complex record of the early Upper Paleolithic, ed. H. Knecht, A. Pike-Tay, and R. White. Boca Raton, CRC Press: 277-299.

White, R.1995. “Ivory personal ornaments of Aurignacian age: Technological, social and symbolic perspectives.” In Le Travail et l'Usage de l'Ivoire au Paléolithique Supérieur. ed. J. Hahn et al. Ravello, Italy: Centre Universitaire Européen pour les Biens Culturels: 29-62.

White, R. 1998. “Comment on D'Errico et al. The Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition at Arcy-sur-Cure.” Current Anthropology, 39:30-32.

White, R. 2001 (in press). “Observations technologiques sur les objets de parure de la couche VII (Aurignacien) de la grotte du Renne, Arcy-sur-Cure (Yonne).” Gallia Préhistoire, supplement.

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