The Archaeology of Britain's First Modern Humans

By Dinnis, Rob | Antiquity, September 2012 | Go to article overview

The Archaeology of Britain's First Modern Humans


Dinnis, Rob, Antiquity


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Introduction: the Aurignacian

Indigenous European Neanderthals were replaced by incoming modern humans about 40-35 000 BP. Although the intricacies of this event continue to be debated, there is broad consensus that the Aurignacian culture (c. 38-30 000 BP) was created by the first modern humans to successfully occupy the entire continent (e.g. Kozlowski & Otte 2000; Davies 2001; Zilhao & d'Errico 2003; Conard 2006; Zilhao 2006; Mellars et al. 2007; Joris & Street 2008; Bailey et al. 2009). European Aurignacian assemblages are found from Russia in the east, to Britain, France and Iberia in the west. These assemblages contain conspicuous evidence for many capabilities and behaviours associated with extant humans, including complex language, music and symbolic material culture (e.g. Vanhaeren & d'Errico 2006; Conard 2009; Conard et al. 2009).

The last decade has seen significant advances in our understanding of the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic transition (e.g. d'Errico et al. 1998; Tostevin 2000; Bon 2002; Bordes 2005; Higham et al. 2010). Much work has been carried out on the long stratigraphies and rich assemblages of southern and south-western Europe. But, although with some notable exceptions (e.g. Jacobi 2007; Flas 2008; White & Pettitt 2011), the far north-west of Europe, and particularly Britain, has, by comparison, been left behind. Upper Palaeolithic Britain was the scene of only sporadic and marginal human occupation, leaving a meagre archaeological record of the period (Garrod 1926; Pettitt 2008; Jacobi & Higham 2011). Combined with problems of imprecision resulting from its early excavation, the British Aurignacian has therefore hitherto been very difficult to interpret.

The re-examination of British Aurignacian material reported here has been encouraged by a recent advance in methodology. Many characteristically Aurignacian lithic 'burin' and 'scraper' artefacts--previously seen as tools--have been shown to be exhausted cores used to produce bladelets (Le Brun-Ricalens et al. 2005). Studies of these cores and their associated bladelets have highlighted chronological and cultural differences in manufacture and form, with marked differences between the earlier Aurignacian (i.e. Proto-Aurignacian and Early Aurignacian) and the later Aurignacian (Bon 2002; Bordes 2005). These insights have allowed old collections to be examined afresh, and answers to archaeological questions found where previously there were only dead ends.

The continental north-western European Aurignacian

Forty-two sites in what is now northern France, Belgium, Luxembourg and north-western Germany have yielded Aurignacian material (Figure 1). When compared with larger sites in south-western Europe most of these are small assemblages, and they often lack detailed information regarding excavation, stratigraphic context and curatorial history. Exceptions include the stratified Middle-Upper Palaeolithic sequence from Grotte du Renne and the larger Early Upper Palaeolithic cave sites in Belgium which, whilst lacking precise stratigraphic data, contained abundant Aurignacian material (e.g. Trou Magrite, Spy, Goyet).

Previously, it has been suggested that only later Aurignacian is present north of 47[degrees] N (Djindjian et al. 1999) and certainly, when compared to south-western Europe, most sites are of later Aurignacian type. However, Grotte du Renne level VII is now acknowledged as Proto-Aurignacian, with characteristic large Dufour bladelets (Bon 2002), and new radiocarbon dates demonstrate its early Aurignacian age (c. 35 000 BP; Higham et al. 2010). Although undated, Dufour bladelets from Beg ar C'hastel (north-west France) are morphologically comparable to those from Grotte du Renne (compare the figures of Bon [2006: 140] with those of Giot & Monnier [1976: 1313]). In Belgium, large collections from Spy, Goyet and Trou Magrite include some lithic artefacts more typical of the earlier Aurignacian, with typically earlier Aurignacian split-base osseous points found at five Belgian sites (Otte 1979).

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