Podcast: Neanderthal mammoth hunters in Jersey

Neanderthal man

25 October 2011 by Richard Hollingham

This week in the Planet Earth podcast, Richard Hollingham meets scientists and archaeologists who are working to preserve one of the most important Neanderthal settlements in north-west Europe to find out how they lived. Later on, he visits the local primary school to find out what schoolchildren make of the Neanderthals.

Archaeologists think La Cotte de St Brelade on the Channel Island of Jersey was almost continually used over a quarter of a million years, making it one of the most important Neanderthal sites in north-west Europe.

Long-term occupation means the La Cotte ravine has revealed the most extensive collection of early Neanderthal technology in the region, including over 250,000 stone tools. Archaeologists have found stones with sharpened edges that could be used to cut or chop, as well as the remains of the animals the Neanderthals hunted and ate.

With huge piles of bones at the bottom of the cliff, it looks like the Jersey Neanderthals organised game drives, rounding up mammoths and driving them over the cliff edge. But the latest findings by archaeologists suggest this might not be the full story.

Richard goes to Jersey to talk to the researcher tasked with preserving the site so that some of these questions can finally be answered.

To assist those who find text-based content more accessible than audio, a transcript of this recording is available below.

Richard Hollingham: I'm Richard Hollingham. Welcome to the Planet Earth podcast and this time I'm in the Channel Islands where archaeologists are working to preserve the most important Neanderthal settlement in Western Europe. This project has received an urgency grant from the Natural Environment Research Council and I will be visiting the site.

Dr Martin Bates: That flat surface on the top there is where somebody has hit it down there and it's broken off.

Richard Hollingham: We will also find out about life in Neanderthal Europe.

Karen Rubens: You might have spotted some woolly rhinoceros and mammoth not far behind them, hopefully, were Neanderthal hunters.

Richard Hollingham: And meet the next generation of archaeologists.

Child's voice: I would think it's quite interesting looking at all the different types of tools and stuff that they did.

Richard Hollingham: Now I'm just clambering over the rocks at La Coq which is in the south west of Jersey. It's a spectacular landscape. Over to my right it's almost a white long sandy beach that runs right across the bay out to the headland and then behind me these enormous granite cliffs, almost like towers coming out straight from the rocky shoreline, and Matt Pope is here from University College, London. Now, Matt, this in archaeological terms is world class really.

Matt Pope: Yes, this is one of a very limited number of sites in the prehistoric world that document long term occupations by ancient humans.

Richard Hollingham: So when you say ancient humans you're talking about Neanderthals?

Matt Pope: Yes, this site we're dealing exclusively with Neanderthals, but it's part of a wider pattern that we see over the world some time after 600,000 years ago where humans start on a long basis to colonise fixed places in landscapes and usually that means caves.

Richard Hollingham: Now we're looking out over the English Channel under very heavy cloud today. Now if we go back, I don't know, 60,000 years, 100,000 years this wouldn't have been water here.

Matt Pope: No, if we're going back into the last ice age into the Devensian, the sea level would have been much lower and what we would have been looking at is not a flat featureless plain, but a landscape a bit like we can see here, a landscape of granite, steep sided granite ravines all feeding in to a river valley system that ultimately feeds into the large England Channel river that would have run down the middle of the land under the sea today.

Richard Hollingham: Now, we've sat down on one of these very slippery granite blocks at the base of the cliff, but the area that you're particularly interested in is higher up, this area of caves and partially collapsed caves as well. What sorts of things have been found here? This is famous in archaeological circles.

Matt Pope: It's an internationally famous site, because we have almost constant occupation by Neanderthals through the entire variety of climates accept those of most extreme cold. We have early Neanderthals dating from somewhere around 250,000 years ago, through to, say, 60,000 ago occupying the site in one sequence of deposits and there we find them alongside, not just stone tools which they're leaving in large numbers, incredibly large numbers here, but the remains of the animals that they were presumably hunting and consuming. We also have evidence of fire. We have some of the earliest evidence for sustained fire use in one location in northern Europe here as well, so this isn't just a serious of hunting sites, a place that they were frequenting for one stop hunts or overnight, this is long-term occupation that has led to deposits that are incredibly rich in occupation debris. Burnt bone, burnt stone, flint tools, the debris of their day to day occupation.

Richard Hollingham: The caves can only be reached at low tide and even then it's a difficult scramble across the rocks. At the top Matt and his colleagues are scraping away at the ground with small archaeologists trowels.

Dr Martin Bates: My name is Dr Martin Bates and I'm from the University of Wales, Trinity St. David in Lampeter and I'm a geo archaeologist and my role here has been to undertake the cleaning and assessment of what is actually preserved in this particular part of the site.

Richard Hollingham: Now we've clambered up the rocks from the sea below and you come across the slippery granite with these towering cliffs above us, an arch of a partially collapsed cave and then there's this, almost, face really of sandy material. This what you're scrapping away at?

Dr Martin Bates: Yes, that's right. What we're looking at in front of us is probably a face that was cut by the sea, eroding back into these deposits sometime between, let's say, 6000 years ago and today. The power of the sea is immense here and the sea has just cut right the way back into these deposits and just left fragments of older sediments dating to the last cold period, the last Ice Age, if you like, just endearing to the edges of the caves. So if you turn to our left and you can see the sheer wall of granite rising 30 metres above our head and we're literally within a couple of metres of that. So this is just plastered on the edge.

Richard Hollingham: So what is this we're looking at? It looks just like a piece of flint.

Dr Martin Bates: It's a piece of flint that has been chipped off a core. You can see the place - that flat surface on the top there is where somebody has hit down there is it's broken off.

Richard Hollingham: So this is only about the size of your thumb nail, here Martin. And how do you know it's not just a little bit of flint? How do you know that's been made?

Dr Martin Bates: Flint doesn't occur naturally here, so any bit of flint that's on this site must have been brought in by somebody for doing something and the fact that it's got this characteristic bulbar surface there suggests that this is a bit of debris from making something else probably.

Richard Hollingham: So somebody made that, what, at least 50,000 years ago.

Dr Martin Bates: Yes, we don't really know the age of these deposits at the moment but we think they're somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 years old, is our guess at the present time.

Karen Rubens: My name is Karen Rubens and I'm a PhD student at the University of Southampton.

Richard Hollingham: When did you first come here and what did you think when you first came here? This is pretty incredible to me that you can just scrape away and find something that was probably chipped away by the Neanderthals?

Karen Rubens: Yes, exactly, it's a very impressive site. I came here for the first time two summers ago and La Coq and St Brelade is a site that everybody learns about as an undergraduate, everybody knows it, it's such an important site for mega fauna hunting. Everybody knows the story that the Neanderthals used to drive mammoths over the cliff here and they have huge bone heaps under the arch, so it's a very well known site. If you come here and you have to walk on the beach, on those pebbles, you have to climb around then you come around the corner and you can see the scale of it and the massive amount of sediment and rubble that is still here. It's very impressive and it's very difficult to describe because even if you see pictures you can't imagine the scale.

Richard Hollingham: Matt, you're scraping away this...is it sand you've been scraping here.

Dr Martin Bates: There's sand and a small amount of clay within this, yeah.

Richard Hollingham: You're scraping away beside Karen here. Now Karen mentioned, and this is...if you read any books on Neanderthals this is the reason this site comes up is that they drove these animals over the edge of the cliff and there's been lots of bones found here. You don't necessarily accept that that's the case.

Dr Martin Bates: We the moment we want to put that hypothesis to the test. It's such a compelling image, it's so ingrained in the archaeological literature and it's really important. If Neanderthals were genuinely getting together, organising a game drive, driving them over the edge of this cliff and down here that's a very organised pattern of behaviour and it's very specific. There are some reasons to consider that we need to look at that again. The work that we're doing out in the wider landscape is showing that this isn't just a desolate flat surface at the end of the [unintelligible], actually this site is commanding a really complex landscape of dead end valleys, granite blasts, perfect intercept hunting territory.

Richard Hollingham: So rather than drive animals over the edge of the cliff, if we look at what is now sea, this was going to be valleys and there was, I think, a small river where the Channel is now. So, animals could have been driven into here rather than over the top.

Dr Martin Bates: La Coq, as part of our reconstruction through the offshore mapping, sits right at the head of a dead end valley, a dead end valley that funnels up from the wider planes of the English Channel region, so it's perfect for incept hunting. There's another reason why we think we need to be sceptical and readdress the game drive hypothesis. And that's because it's based on the idea that this was an open ravine-

Richard Hollingham: Which it is now.

Dr Martin Bates: Which it is now, but as you can see we've got this remnant of arch there and there's a lot of reasons for suspecting that in fact this was an enclosed cave system, at least part of it, may be all of it, at the time of the Neanderthals were occupying it. They could have driven off cliffs elsewhere but not necessarily down into this exact ravine. If that's the case those bone elements would have been dragged into the caves. So even if you've got the game drive hypothesis those big piles of mammoth bone, mammoth skulls, mammoth ribs, mammoth tusks can't be in situ, they can't be in the position where they died they've been moved and that's important behaviour.

Richard Hollingham: So these are all things that you want to find out. It strikes me that you're almost starting again on some of these ideas or starting a new era of investigating this area?

Dr Martin Bates: Yeah, this site is so complex and it's been investigated over a very long period of time, the first excavations really beginning in 1905. With some of those units we do need to begin again because the records that were made were so poor that we simply have a collection of artefacts with no context, with no idea of their dating, no idea of the associated planning and environmental material and there we do have to begin again.

Richard Hollingham: This is the Planet Earth podcast from the Neanderthal caves at La Coq in Jersey. You can see pictures of the work here on our Facebook page, although it is difficult to capture the scale of the site. As well as the team here, I've also been speaking to Olga Finch the curator of archaeology for Jersey Heritage. I asked her about the extent of the collection of artefacts from La Coq.

Olga Finch: The first flint tools were found in 1881 and the site has been subject to a series of excavations pretty much on and off since that time and the last big excavations were the Cambridge excavations in the 1960s. So between all of that work we've generated a massive collection of lithics, of stone tools and fauna material. There are probably about 250 stone tools. This new team have come with new vision for the collection. We know that the majority of the objects were processed 30 years ago and they're not very accessible, they're in boxes but in terms of carrying out modern analytical studies there's a lot of work still to do. So future generations can come along and help us study and learn a lot more about the first people of Jersey.

Richard Hollingham: What were those first people like do you think? It's difficult today when you look out, standing on the beach, you can see the waves, the grey sky, a few rocks, that's it - this was so different.

Olga Finch: Yeah, and I guess for people living on a small island it is a big leap of the imagination to try and get back there, a quarter of a million years ago. We're on a nice sandy beach now looking across to La Coq and all the high ground and the rocks of the bay around us. There would have been no sea because we were in the Ice Age, so we were looking out here to a vast coastal plain of tundra environment, you might have spotted some woolly rhinoceros and mammoth and not far behind them, hopefully, were our Neanderthal hunters heading here and heading, we know, at least, to the site of La Coq to St Brelade. That's our current thinking. Now, obviously, the new team are doing a lot of modern surveys, particularly the seabed that's already...I know it's early days but that's already revealing new and putting a whole new light on actually that when the sea wasn't here it wasn't just a flat land there are areas showing up of valley systems, so we're getting to see beneath the sea which is fantastic.

Richard Hollingham: There's this reinterpretation, this rethinking of what it was like there, how they lived and perhaps how they hunted as well.

Olga Finch: Yeah, I think the last major focus on this site was 30 years ago. Techniques were very different then, the interpretation was very different then and we've all been left with this idea that the mammoths were driven over the top, dropped down the great heights, butchered giving us these bone heaps, but the team now are bringing with them a whole new vision for the site and challenging some of the interpretations. So, for me, it's very exciting because it's my job to take what Matt and the team are doing and then interpret that for the islanders through exhibitions, through school projects and so it's really nice to have it all challenged, refreshed and a new vision for the site.

Richard Hollingham: Olga Finch. Well, Olga mentioned she works with local schools here in Jersey and I joined her with the Year 4 class at nearby La Moye Primary.

Olga Finch: Now this morning I've brought along some of the objects that were found during the excavations at La Coq. We looked at the photographs didn't we of some of the early excavators and of course we know that there was the famous excavator in the 1960s, Prince Charles came didn't he. Who would like to tell me what they think this is?

Pupil: A shoe.

Olga Finch: A shoe. No. Try again.

Pupil: A spine.

Olga Finch: A spine.

Pupil: A tooth.

Olga Finch: A tooth, very good, well spotted. Now does that look like a tooth that you have?

Pupils: No.

Olga Finch: Right, well this tooth belongs to a mammoth.

Richard Hollingham: And the children at La Moye are rapidly becoming experts on Neanderthal Jersey.

Sam, Megan, Alisha, Katie, Ellie.

Richard Hollingham: Now who could tell me what it used to be like? Yes Megan.

Megan: It didn't have any sunny weather like it now. The mammoth needed all their big fur to keep them warm.

Richard Hollingham: So there were mammoths here?

Megan: And arctic foxes and animals that like the cold.

Richard Hollingham: And Sam, what was it like do you think? What was it like for the Neanderthals?

Sam: They could walk across from France to Jersey and Jersey to France, backwards and forwards and then chase the mammoths off the cliffs so that it would be really cold.

Richard Hollingham: What do they look like? Because they didn't look like us.

Sam: They had big nostrils so that they could warm up the cold air and lots of hair so that they could keep warm.

Richard Hollingham: What do you think it would be like to have lived in the cave?

Pupil: It would probably be quite cold and like a damp feeling and it would properly be quite frightened when they, say, like you dad or something went to hunt.

Richard Hollingham: So do any of you want to become archaeologists now?

Pupil: I want to become an archaeologist.

Pupil: I would think it's quite interesting looking at all the different types of tools and stuff that they did.

Pupil: It must be, like, quite eerie going into the cave but I think I would love it.

Richard Hollingham: Pupils at La Moye Primary School. So, what was this site like when Neanderthals lived here? It's a question that Matt Pope has thought a lot about.

Matt Pope: Of course the thing that is really captivating about the sites are the piles of fauna, piles of mammoth and piles of bits of rhinoceros and trying to envisage what the site was like then. Now we're pretty sure it was still enclosed, or at least partially enclosed, at that stage and also the site would have been much fuller and so you're within a cave environment with a solid roof, they're bringing, we think, in these elements of mammoth skull, mammoth ribs into the site and they're carrying out knapping there. We also know that there's ash and burnt bone as well. So, at this stage if you're imaging it, we're in a very cold environment, we know there's a lot of ice flowing around, so it's quite arid, sea levels are very low. They found an area of shelter here that they're using for the sharing of meat, for the butchering of animals and for making flint tools and also burning material, potentially bone.

Richard Hollingham: So it's a community?

Matt Pope: Yeah, it's an occupation it's a place where they're settling and committing to for long periods of time. They're bringing material here for such long periods of time that it's not just one generation it's generation after generation coming back to this single fixed place in the landscape.

Richard Hollingham: That sounds very much like a community today, a village today. I mean you could go across the headland here to a small village on Jersey.

Matt Pope: More or less the same. Absolutely. Numbers are probably going to be very low. We're dealing with an extended family but if you look at the archaeological record before here if you go back beyond a million years you will find piles of food refuge and piles of stone tools but they're in open landscape context, they're not places where people are living. Here we've got evidence of people actually settling down, occupying, homes.

Richard Hollingham: Just being here and just talking to the three of you, you could sense the excitement and you're finding things. Here, between the tides, three hours or so and yet you've found a couple of pieces of flint, you've just found a little tooth, you know, it's exciting stuff.

Matt Pope: Well it's an incredibly rich site and that's why our excitement, we hope, can now translate into preserving it for future generations and that's going to take a lot of work and this is just the first stage in stabilising the site and working with the site owners to affect a long-term preservation solution here.

Richard Hollingham: Matt Pope. And that's the Plant Earth podcast from the National Environment Research Council. Don't forget there are photos on our Facebook page and for the latest from the national world, do visit Plant Earth online. I'm Richard Hollingham from La Coq in Jersey. Thanks for listening.