Mousterian Fires from Grotte XVI (Dordogne, France)

Article excerpt

A new study from the Dordogne decisively identifies and confirms the use of fires in a Mousterian context; and the thick ashy deposit, identified as the remains of burnt lichen, clarifies the real nature of those distinctive deposits, known from other sites of the era.

Excavation in the Grotte XVI, a Middle and Upper Palaeolithic cave site in the Dordogne (France) has recently yielded new information concerning the use of fire by Mousterian peoples. A suite of analytic techniques, especially micromorphology, has allowed us to identify combustion features of human production. In addition, the periodicity of fireplace use, periods of site abandonment and the fuels employed in the fires have also been defined. Absolute age determinations made on burnt sediments from the fires place their use at between 53,900 and 65,600 years ago.


This brief paper concerns discoveries made in Couche C of the Grotte XVI, a deeply stratified cave site in the Dordogne (France). Couche C is a late Mousterian level, firmly dated by thermoluminescence (TL). Of particular interest are discolourations and alterations to the natural carbonate sediment matrix that we interpret as reflecting intentional fires produced by people. To reach this interpretation, we employ a number of analytic techniques, including stratigraphy and micromorphology, to investigate how the observed deposit was formed. At the end of our analysis, we conclude that humans built fires, the remnants of which were altered by human and natural forces into the present observed sediments. Our analyses and reasoning may be of interest to readers concerned with identifying very ancient fires. The features themselves, representing some of the earliest well-dated fire structures known from Europe, are compelling evidence for current debates over the nature of Late Pleistocene human behavioural evolution.

In recent years, the issue of early fire-use has received renewed interest, sparked, in part, by debate over the behavioural capabilities of pre-modern humans (Stringer & Gamble 1993; cf. Trinkhaus & Shipman 1993). For us, this issue has two main elements:

1 the prehistory of fire-use itself and

2 technical problems with identifying early fire-use from the archaeological record.

The prehistory of human fire has undergone major rethinking in recent years. It now seems that none of the `classic' examples of early fire-use, such as Zhoukoutien, Terra Amata, Lazeret etc., hold up under modern scrutiny, either because the source of burning is equivocal (e.g. Binford & Ho 1985; James 1989) or because the general site integrity can be questioned (e.g. Villa 1983). However, more recent discoveries, excavated with modern methods, do indicate that fire was used by hominids during the Middle Palaeolithic (Bar-Yosef et al. 1992; Courty et al. 1989; Goldberg 1979; Meignen et al. 1989; Rigaud 1988) and perhaps earlier (Barbetti 1986; Barbetti et al. 1980 Gowlett et al. 1981). A number of thick ashy deposits have been identified in Middle Palaeolithic sites, especially in the Near East (Bar-Yosef et al. 1992), but their interpretation has remained somewhat uncertain. To aid in understanding fire-related deposits such as these, new techniques have been applied entailing technical and physical analysis (e.g. Barbetti et al. 1980; Bellomo 1993; Bischoff et al. 1984; Patterson et al. 1987); microstratigraphy and micromorphology have also been useful (Courty et al. 1989, Goldberg 1979). At the same time, many of the traditional definitions of fire-use, the nature of evidence uncovered in archaeological sites and the relationship between empirical evidence and past behaviours have also been examined critically (Perles 1975; 1977; see papers in Olive & Taborin 1989).

In light of these new approaches to fire-use in the remote human past, we consider our new evidence from the Grotte XVI. In doing so, we first outline the context of that evidence, then discuss our analyses, and conclude with some observations about what ancient fire-use at Grotte XVI might mean. …