Café Neandertal: Excavating Our Past in One of Europe's Most Ancient Places

Café Neandertal: Excavating Our Past in One of Europe's Most Ancient Places

by Beebe Bahrami


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619026100
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 02/27/2018
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,326,863
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

BEEBE BAHRAMI is the author of The Spiritual Traveler Spain and Historic Walking Guides Madrid. Her work has appeared in Archaeology , Wine Enthusiast , Bark , The Pennsylvania Gazette , National Geographic Books , and Michelin Green Guides , among other publications. She has written two travel apps, The Esoteric Camino France and Spain and Madrid Walks , and maintains two blogs, Café Oc , on life in the Dordogne, and The Pilgrim’s Way Café , dedicated to exploring the world on foot.

Read an Excerpt


With such a complex topic, involving so many people and places, past and present, I have made every effort to be meticulously accurate. If any errors have made their way in, they are wholly unintended. Also, at times I had to sacrifice the chronology of certain encounters to forefront clarity and present the wholeness and integrity of each chapter’s topic. The events here cover the period from 2010 to 2015. The main dig featured, at La Ferrassie, went for five years, from 2010-2014. The summer after, in 2015, the key researchers met in Carsac to discuss the findings and possible interpretations based on the current body of evidence. That year I also did some long distance trekking across southwestern France and northern Spain and visited other Neandertal sites. In all, I have remained true to the knowledge and experience of the encounters described herein. And lastly, I spell Neandertal without an “h” for a very particular reason, which I explain two-thirds of the way in. If you really want to know why before then, there is no harm in flipping ahead to find out.


Seven bodies lay scattered across the cave floor like leaves in the wind. Some were missing limbs or parts of their torso or craniums. One’s detached head had rolled a few feet away. Standing at the mouth of the cave, I made out the first body in the haphazard line of corpses beginning directly in front of my line of vision. There lay a large man in his forties. His lifeless arms and legs were folded in toward his body as if, in his last moments, he had been trying to keep warm. To the left of where he lay was a similarly positioned person, a woman in her late twenties or early thirties. Scanning to the right from both were the remaining five, all children, splayed helter-skelter, two not far from the man, one a little farther away, and the last separated from them all at the opposite end of the cave. The two oldest children had been ages ten and three. The remaining three were infants eight months and younger.

Even though this was a cold case, one that I was reconstructing from black and white photos while the actual bodies were now in a lab in Paris, it was hard not to feel the visceral presence of these seven. I immediately connected to their humanity through what I imagined were their emotions in their last moments of life. My thoughts burned with a single question. What had happened to them?

A comforting breeze picked up, evaporating the beads of sweat that gathered on my brow and rustling the leaves of the oak and hazel forest overhead. I looked up to take in the whole rock shelf under which the bodies had been found. It was hidden in the depth of a quiet forest on a remote hillside in an unindustrialized part of southwestern France. Cell phone reception was impossible. It was hardly an ideal spot for an emergency.

But everyone was here today, milling busily about, each focused on answering the same question. Investigators, crew, and local volunteers knowledgeable about the land and geography all worked within the large rock shelf, excavating, gathering samples, and looking for clues.

I watched mesmerized as one of the team of specialists, a veteran geologist, stared at the rock face for several long and considered moments as if he were seeing a movie play out on its surface. He next walked to a pile of just dug up dirt and pinched a bit from the top. He closed his eyes and rubbed the soil between his fingers, sensing something esoteric but material in the earth. He then held the soil up to his nose and like a master sommelier explored the bouquet. At last he opened his eyes and held the soil under the magnifying glass hanging around his neck to confirm or negate what he’d already learned from his own senses. He then casually returned the pinch back to its bucket and moved on to his next interrogation, carefully viewing, touching, and smelling rocks and dirt across our excavation zone. Was it more sand than clay? Did it have certain telltale minerals, burnt bits, bone? Did it belong more to one layer than another?

His answers would begin the most important foundational work of understanding the events that this earth had undergone by both natural and human causes. His presence marked a new science and the difference between the current team and those who had investigated here in the past. is team drew from a very diverse mix of specialists from across the sciences and across the world, bringing the best of knowledge and techniques to recreate the human and natural context in which these seven had lived, and died.

We even had a film crew, a two-person team that worked at the perimeter and wove in and out between the investigators, documenting every moment and every piece of unearthed evidence. They focused on paleo- anthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the Max Planck Institute’s department of human evolution in Leipzig, Germany, who was visiting for the week. The lens zeroed in on his infectious broad smile and what he held in his right hand.

While the team had been here already for five dig seasons over five years, today, during the last two weeks of the h and last season, three paleoanthropologists— Isabelle Crevecoeur from Bordeaux, Asier Gómez-Olivencia from Bilbao, and Antoine Balzeau from Paris— found something of significance to the cold case. They had just reopened the original hole where the three-year old child had been found, hoping to find more of the child’s incomplete skeleton. Instead, they found an adult molar, and that in a part of the cave where no adults had ever been found, only children. It didn’t seem likely that the tooth was associated with the two adults over fifteen meters away in a part of the cave where it seemed unlikely that it would have arrived by natural processes. A new question surfaced. Was another adult buried nearby, perhaps under all the rock fall that still had to be cleared away from deeper in the cave?

The camera rolled. Filmmaker Sophie Cattoire checked the lensing before asking her first question. Celebrated in the region for her talent and skill in bringing out the local life of the southwest, especially the personalities behind its prehistory, she and her partner, both in life and in profession, Vincent Lesbros, were behind lm company Ferrassie TV, named after where we worked, the site of La Ferrassie. Today, against the sauna- like summer heat, she wore a low-cut dark blue spaghetti-strap top and had piled her long, flaming red hair atop her head, accentuated further by the cherry-toned lipstick that she pulled o with the easy elegance so common among French women.

She stepped back and regarded Jean-Jacques in his perfectly pressed cobalt blue summer shirt that brought out his engaging brown eyes. Because La Ferrassie derived its name from the iron rich soil, le fer ici , ‘iron is here,’ being the most popular etymology offered by locals for the name, the burnt-orange earth that surrounded us popped with their blue tops. It was as if they’d planned this composition on a color wheel before enacting it. But like many things here, it was a part of the unplanned but perfect magic of the place, the people, and the work.

Alors ,” began Sophie, “please tell us, Jean-Jacques, about the tooth you are holding.”

Donc , the tooth is probably the inferior molar of a Neandertal.” He beamed an infectious smile into the camera, one that likely had been with him since boyhood when he first discovered the fascinating world of prehistory. He then paused and reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out two gigantic plastic models of teeth, a Neandertal tooth and a Homo sapiens tooth—like you do—both from adults, to demonstrate how obvious it was to him who the owner had been. These two model teeth had coincidentally arrived for him in the day’s mail back at the dig house.

He pointed with his free hand and explained also that Neandertal molars tended to have larger pulp chambers, called taurodontism, a common feature in Neandertals and a rarer one among modern humans. Plus, the tooth had been found in a layer that preceded any modern humans to the area so this was extra conformation. He deftly held the models and the real tooth in his hands and offered the camera an extreme close up.

While no one expected to find this adult tooth in the possible grave of a small child, what was in keeping with the known story of this cold case was that the tooth could only belong to a Neandertal because of the strata in which it was found in, one dating to between 50,000 to 70,000 years old, a date that the geologist was working hard to narrow down. is cold case was so old that it was perhaps one of France’s oldest.

All seven found here were Neandertals. The site of La Ferrassie was famous and had long been called the Neandertal Cemetery for the fact that a good many archaeologists, as well as lay-people, viewed this as a place where intentional burials took place. Not everyone agreed though, for the evidence has a lot of holes, and they in contrast think these bodies could have been buried from natural causes, perhaps from a single natural disaster that took them all at once—such as hunger or extreme cold—and then their bodies were eventually buried through the process of natural sedimentation and rock fall. Yet others see a middle-of-the-way scenario, that the dead bodies were set aside here by other Neandertals but that natural causes covered them up.

La Ferrassie is in many ways a microcosm of the raging issues engulfing Neandertals, and us, in the broader field of paleoanthropology and the broader geographical contexts of Neandertals, who lived as far east as southern Siberia, as far west as Portugal’s coast, as far south as Israel and Gibraltar, and as far north as Wales and the (now) island of Jersey. La Ferrassie is a site that not only concentrates the issues about whether Neandertals buried their dead but also about who they were as humans, especially those qualities we hold above all others as exceptionally human: our ability to think symbolically, to make complex tools, to speak languages, to create art, and along with these symbolic processes, the enactment of rituals such as burial that implies a connection to the intangible, the afterlife, and the invisible spirit world.

La Ferrassie is in the Dordogne, not far from the town of Les Eyzies, and in the heart of the most concentrated region for human prehistory in Europe. Les Eyzies itself was a village whose rock shelves and prehistoric remains put it on the map and at the heart of European prehistory. It also became the natural location for France’s national prehistory museum. One of Les Eyzies’ rock shelves even gave us the name Cro-Magnon to refer to early modern humans, Homo sapiens. It was here in the heart of the old village where in the side yard of Monsieur Magnon in 1868 road workers uncovered the burial site of five early modern humans who had lived here around 27,000 years ago. The Occitan word for hole, cro , was applied to the find. Occitan is an old Romance language originating in Latin and closely related to French and Spanish—the old language of the Troubadours—and was, and in many pockets remains, the region’s dominant rural language.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1 The La Ferrassie Seven . . . . . . . . . . . 1

CHAPTER 2 A Bundle of Shallots . . . . . . . . . . . 23

CHAPTER 3 Chez les Neandertals . . . . . . . . . . . 47

CHAPTER 4 The International Neandertal . . . . . . . . . . . 61

CHAPTER 5 A Di erent Sort of Pilgrimage . . . . . . . . . . . 85

CHAPTER 6 A Moveable Neandertal Feast . . . . . . . . . . . 105

CHAPTER 7 Gathered Around the Hearth Fire . . . . . . . . . . . 131

CHAPTER 8 As If Written in Stone . . . . . . . . . . . 155

CHAPTER 9 Piper at the Gates of Dawn . . . . . . . . . . . 173

CHAPTER 10 Love in the Time of Neandertals . . . . . . . . . . . 193

CHAPTER 11 A Foot in the Grave . . . . . . . . . . . 219

CHAPTER 12 Morphing Neandertals . . . . . . . . . . . 245

Acknowledgements . . . . . . . . . . . 269

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