Southwestern France as a human habitat

One of the most striking and widely recognized features of the archaeological record of the Perigord and adjacent areas of southwestern France is the sheer wealth and abundance of the evidence for Palaeolithic occupation. This pattern is well documented for both the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic periods and is reflected not only in the overall totals of occupied sites - running into several hundred for both the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic (see Chapter 8) - but also in the density and concentration of the archaeological remains recovered from the sites (Mellars 1985). Making allowance for various possible forms of bias in the survival and documentation of the archaeological evidence (such as the long history of Palaeolithic research in the region and the favourable conditions for preservation of occupation deposits in cave and rock shelter sites) no one would seriously question that the southwestern French region has yielded the richest and most concen trated record of human occupation during the various stages of the last glacial sequence so far documented in Europe (Sackett 1968; Laville et al. 1980; David 1985).

No doubt part of the explanation for this wealth and intensity of Palaeolithic occupation lies in some of the basic topographic and geological features of the Perigord region -including the abundance of naturally protected cave and rock shelter sites, the obvious protection offered by these sheltered valley habitats against harsh glacial climates and the relative abundance and widespread distribution of high quality flint supplies for tool manufacture (see Chapter 5). It is arguable, however, that the most critical features which attracted and supported a high level of human occupation in this region throughout the last glacial period were specific local climatic and ecological conditions. As I have discussed more fully elsewhere (Mellars 1985) the main features of these conditions are as follows:

1. All attempts to map the distribution of ecological zones throughout Europe under the various 'glacial' regimes of the Pleistocene period indicate that the southwestern zone of France must have supported the most southern areas of essentially open tundra or steppe-like vegetation within the European continent (e.g. Butzer 1972: Fig. 51; Iversen 1973: 16-17). The explanation for this is related simply to the highly maritime character of the climate in this extreme western zone of Europe, which keeps summer temperatures to a much lower level than those experienced in more continental zones of central and eastern Europe and provides correspondingly less favourable conditions for tree growth. As shown in Fig. 2.31, the latitudinal margin of forest growth tends to shift progressively towards the north as one moves from west to east across Europe into regions of increasingly continental climate and correspondingly warmer summers. The important implication is that these extreme

Figure 2.31 Reconstruction of the major vegetation zones, ice sheets, and coastlines in Europe at the time of the last glacial maximum, ca 18-20,000 BP, according to Iversen 1973. Note how the zone of open tundra and steppe vegetation extends much further to the south in western Europe than in central and eastern Europe.

Figure 2.31 Reconstruction of the major vegetation zones, ice sheets, and coastlines in Europe at the time of the last glacial maximum, ca 18-20,000 BP, according to Iversen 1973. Note how the zone of open tundra and steppe vegetation extends much further to the south in western Europe than in central and eastern Europe.

southern tundra and steppe landscapes received exceptionally high levels of solar radiation (due to their latitude) and consequently would have supported some of the highest levels of plant productivity within the European continent (Butzer 1972: 463). As a habitat for many open-living herbivorous species, including reindeer, horse, bison etc., these tundra and steppe zones of southwestern France were probably unique within the last-glacial landscapes of Europe.

2. A second factor which would almost certainly have had a major influence on the overall carrying capacity of southwestern France for animal populations was the relative oceanicity of the climate and the corresponding mildness, by glacial standards, of the winters. Accurate temperature estimates are notoriously difficult to derive from pal-aeoecological evidence, but one estimate based on botanical data has suggested an annual temperature range in the Perigord region around the time of the last glacial maximum from ca 12-15°C in summer to 0°C in winter (Wilson 1975: 185). Temperatures would have risen a few degrees higher than this during the major interstadial phases of the last glaciation.

The comparative mildness of the winters would have benefited animal as well as human populations in a variety of ways, most notably by reducing the depth and duration of snow cover and by ameliorating some of the worst effects of the punishing weather conditions which must have posed a major obstacle to human and animal survival in some of the central and eastern zones of Europe (e.g. Gamble 1983). Possibly the most important consequence of these milder winters, however, would have been to extend the duration of the growing season for most species of plants and therefore to increase substantially the quantities of forage which were available to animal populations throughout the winter season. This in turn would have had a major impact on the overall carrying capacity of the region for animal herds, since it is now generally recognized that it is the availability of winter forage, especially during the late winter and earliest spring months, that represents the most critical factor in determining the overall density and biomass of animal populations which can be supported in any region on a long-term basis (Moen 1973: 404-13).

3. Whilst the abundance and concentration of local animal populations was no doubt one of the critical factors in supporting high human population densities, it is arguable that the most important single factor was the sheer variety and diversity of local ecological conditions within this region (Jochim 1983; Mellars 1985). The Perigord region is characterized by two contrasting types of habitat: the very open, exposed environments on the extensive limestone plateaux; and the sheltered habitats within the major river valleys which dissect these plateaux. At present these areas are characterized by significantly different micro-habitats - with generally warmer climatic conditions in the valleys associated with greater protection from wind exposure, and richer, deeper and more fertile soils than on the higher, more exposed plateaux (Laville 1975; Duchadeau-Kervazo 1982).

This complex interdigitation of plateau and valley habitats helps to explain the ecological diversity reflected within both the palaeobotanical and faunal evidence from the southwestern French sites throughout the last glacial period. As Paquereau (1979) has pointed out, the major river valleys in the Perigord and adjacent areas almost certainly supported some tree growth throughout the last glacial succession. During the coldest periods this would have been reduced to the hardier species such as pine and birch, perhaps confined mainly to the deeper and more sheltered valleys. During the milder interstadial periods, however, this range of species expanded to include a variety of specifically warmth-loving species such as oak, elm, lime, hazel and alder. As Paquereau (1979) and others have emphasized, we should visualize vegetational conditions in the Perigord and adjacent areas as a mosaic of contrasting communities with the zones of woodland extending mainly along the more sheltered valleys and predominantly open, tundra or steppe-like vegetation flourishing over the higher and more exposed plateau areas.

This element of ecological diversity is equally reflected in the composition of the faunal assemblages from Middle and Upper Palaeolithic sites (Jochim 1983; Mellars 1985; Delpech 1983). As discussed in Chapter 7, many of the sites show a predominance of one particular species (normally either reindeer, red deer, horse or large bovids) which could indicate either a deliberate selection for the exploitation of these particular species by the human groups themselves, or alternatively, the specific character of the local eco logical conditions within the immediate environment of each site. However, the most remarkable aspect of the faunal evidence is the exceptional range of different animal species represented in most sites and the ways in which their remains normally occur, side by side, within the same occupation levels.

In economic terms the crucial importance of ecological diversity lies in the degree of security which this provides against periods of occasional failure of particular economic resources (Drury 1975). Even if the populations of some animal species, such as reindeer, may occasionally have suffered rapid declines as a result of short-term ecological fluctuations - or even overexploitation by the human groups themselves (Mithen 1989, 1993) - it is likely that the human communities would still have had access to many other, complementary species of animals to tide them over these periods of temporary resource failure. It is this aspect of diversity in economic resources which helps to explain the capacity of southwestern France to support dense and concentrated human populations and, apparently, to provide a high degree of economic security for them over long spans of time.

4. The fourth aspect of ecological conditions in southwestern France which has been emphasized in several studies (e.g. Drury 1975; Mellars 1985; Raynal & Guadelli 1990) is the marked compression or steepening of ecological zones along an east-to-west axis which characterized this region throughout the last glacial period. The general topography and relief of the Perigord and adjacent areas is such that there is a natural and fairly rapid succession of topographic and environmental zones as one moves progressively westwards from the higher elevations of the Massif Central towards the coastal Atlantic Plain. Under glacial conditions, however, these ecological gradients were made even steeper by the presence of local glaciers in some of the higher elevations of the Massif

Central (Fig. 2.32) and by sharply reduced temperatures within these upland areas. As Raynal and Guadelli (1990) have pointed out, there appears to be evidence for this in some of the recent pollen records from the Massif and adjacent areas which point to a rapid change in vegetational and associated climatic patterns between the Massif Central and the Atlantic coast.

The direct effect of this steepening of ecological gradients from east to west was to add a further dimension of potential ecological diversity to the overall range of environments available to the human communities. The patterns of animal migration within this region are still subject to some controversy (e.g. Bouchud 1966; Spiess 1979; Gordon 1988; Boyle 1990; Pike-Tay 1991, 1993; Burke 1993) but there can be little doubt, on purely ecological grounds, that some of the major migratory movements of species such as reindeer, and perhaps horse and red deer, were along an essentially west-east trajectory from the more low-lying and sheltered valley areas of the Perigord and adjacent areas during the winter months towards the higher elevations of the Massif Central and its immediate foothills during the summer. Bouchud (1966) and others, however, have argued that any migrations along this axis are likely to have been on a limited scale, and unlikely to have extended more than perhaps 80-100 km between winter and summer ranges. With the sharp compression of climatic and ecological gradients along this east-west axis during the coldest glacial episodes, it could be argued that any migrations along this axis were even further reduced. The implication is that these migratory animal populations were probably never very far from the Perigord region during any part of the annual cycle, and presumably were accessible for exploitation by the local human groups within at most a few days of travel either towards the middle or upper foothill zones of the Massif Central, or perhaps into the coastal Atlantic Plain (Mellars 1985).

Figure 2.32 Estimated extent of glaciers in the Massif Central region of central France at the time of the last glacial maximum, ca 18-20,000 BP (after Daugas & Raynal 1989). The presence of these glaciers would inevitably have created much sharper east-west gradients in climatic and ecological conditions across the southwestern French region than at the present day.

Figure 2.32 Estimated extent of glaciers in the Massif Central region of central France at the time of the last glacial maximum, ca 18-20,000 BP (after Daugas & Raynal 1989). The presence of these glaciers would inevitably have created much sharper east-west gradients in climatic and ecological conditions across the southwestern French region than at the present day.

5. The final point concerns the probable role of the major river valleys which traverse the Perigord region as the major, habitual migration trails of species such as reindeer. This has been discussed in several earlier studies (e.g. Bouchud 1966; Spiess 1979) and may be critical to understanding many aspects of the detailed distribution of both Middle and Upper Palaeolithic sites in this region. The point is that by locating settlements or hunting locations directly astride these major migration trails it was possible for human groups to intercept animal populations deriving from relatively large territories within southwestern France - i.e. the combined summer and winter ranges - at a single location (Mellars 1985: 280). As an explanation for the remarkable concentration of Middle and Upper Palaeolithic sites at particular locations in the Perigord region (for example in certain sections of the Vezere and Dordogne valleys: see Figs 8.1, 8.2)

this is probably the most important single factor.

The factors discussed above are very general features of the ecological and environmental conditions within southwestern France, and their precise character would have fluctuated sharply and repeatedly during the different chronological and climatic phases of the Upper Pleistocene. We are still, unfortunately, very poorly equipped with information on some of the more specific aspects of environmental patterns, most notably reliable estimates of temperature conditions, varying snow-fall regimes and the extent of seasonal contrasts in climate. It is against this background that we will examine the archaeological records of the behaviour and organization of Neanderthal communities within these western fringes of Europe.

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