Research Article: Rocks, teeth, and tools: New insights into early Neanderthal mobility strategies in South-Eastern France from lithic reconstructions and strontium isotope analysis

Date Published: April 3, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Marie-Hélène Moncel, Paul Fernandes, Malte Willmes, Hannah James, Rainer Grün, Michael D. Petraglia.

http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214925

Abstract

Neanderthals had complex land use patterns, adapting to diversified landscapes and climates. Over the past decade, considerable progress has been made in reconstructing the chronology, land use and subsistence patterns, and occupation types of sites in the Rhône Valley, southeast France. In this study, Neanderthal mobility at the site of Payre is investigated by combining information from lithic procurement analysis (“chaîne evolutive” and “chaîne opératoire” concepts) and strontium isotope analysis of teeth (childhood foraging area), from two units (F and G). Both units date to the transition from Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 8 to MIS 7, and show similar environmental conditions, but represent contrasting occupation durations. Level Gb (unit G) represents a long-term year-round use, in contrast to short-term seasonal use of the cave in level Fb (unit F). For both levels, lithic material and food were generally collected from a local to semi-local region. However, in level Gb, lithic materials were mainly collected from colluviums and food collected in the valley, whereas in level Fb, lithic procurement focused primarily on alluvial deposits and food was collected from higher elevation plateaus. These procurement or exchange patterns might be related to flint availability, knapping advantages of alluvial flint or occupation duration. The site of Payre is located in a flint rich circulation corridor and the movement of groups or exchanges between groups were organized along a north-south axis on the plateaus or towards the east following the river. The ridges were widely used as they are rich in flint, whereas the Rhône Valley is not an important source of lithic raw materials. Compared to other western European Middle Palaeolithic sites, these results indicate that procurement strategies have a moderate link with occupation types and duration, and with lithic technology. The Sr isotope ratios broadly match the proposed foraging areas, with the Rhône Valley being predominantly used in unit G and the ridges and limestone plateaus in unit F. While lithic reconstructions and childhood foraging are not directly related this suggests that the three analysed Neanderthals spend their childhood in the same general area and supports the idea of mobile Neanderthals in the Rhône Valley and neighbouring higher elevation plateaus. The combination of reconstructing lithic raw material sources, provisioning strategies, and strontium isotope analyses provides new details on how Neanderthals at Payre practised land use and mobility in the Early Middle Palaeolithic.

Partial Text

Neanderthal land use was complex and adapted to diversified landscapes, diverse climates and raw material sources (lithics and food resources). Current mobility models derived from ethnoarchaeological studies have shown that Neanderthals adapted their behaviour to the environment, alternating short and long-term occupations, described as base camps and/or satellite camps [1–14]. In south-eastern France, numerous Neanderthal sites link the medium-altitude regions of the Massif Central and Alpine foothills with the Rhône Valley. Over the past decade, considerable progress has been made in reconstructing the chronology, land use, subsistence and occupation patterns of these sites. Current models suggest complex occupation patterns, including long-term residential camps, as well as short-term regular hunting camps and brief stopover camps, showing that past populations may have been anticipating their land use requirements [15].

No permits were required for the described study.

The combination of reconstructing lithic raw material sources, provisioning strategies, and strontium analyses provides new details on how Neanderthals at Payre practised land use and mobility in the Early Middle Palaeolithic. On the south-eastern fringes of the Massif Central, the diverse Middle Palaeolithic strategies show a moderate link with occupation types and duration, and with technology. The region contains abundant flint resources, which may explain permanent choices and behavioural patterns, the circulating mode on limestone formations, as well as the low intensity of artefact curation. Local materials are systematically used regardless of occupation duration in a region where no specialized butchery sites have yet been discovered. The higher diversity of flint types and thus of procurement sites during short occupations has yet to be explained, as has the abandonment of the small toolkit during these occupations. Local flint can circulate in the same way as objects from the regional perimeter, putting the current land use model into question. Strontium analyses of human teeth at Payre indicate food procurement during childhood occurred in a local to semi-local perimeter. While lithics and teeth are not directly related, these findings agree with the foraging radius suggested by the lithic analysis and suggest mobile Neanderthals in the Rhône Valley and on the surrounding higher elevation plateaus. Definitive data regarding circulation patterns, information about circulation directions, minimum distances travelled, possible exchanges and topographical constraints remain unclear. The reasons behind the choice of some raw materials also remain enigmatic as strategies may not be directly related to raw material accessibility and abundance. Further research is required in order to understand the cultural factors behind land use patterns and the choice and use of specific raw materials by Neanderthals.

 

Source:

http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214925

 

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