Academic journal article Antiquity

Magdalenian Pioneers in the Northern French Alps, 17 000 Cal BP

Academic journal article Antiquity

Magdalenian Pioneers in the Northern French Alps, 17 000 Cal BP

Article excerpt


The colonisation of new territories by human groups is a new but important subject of research for the prehistorian. However, these processes can only be analysed in certain archaeological contexts with a rich documentation originating from well described geographical and chronological contexts. Current models predict that pioneering phases may be characterised by the transport of high quality raw materials over long distances. For example, in North America, Kelly & Todd saw the production of tools designed specifically to remain versatile and durable "in areas where only a limited number of stone sources might have been known" (1988: 237-38). C. Tolan-Smith argued for a more economical model for the Pleistocene-Holocene transition in Great Britain: a 'colonisation phase', characterised by an important proportion of allochthonous flint resources in the lithic equipment, preceding a 'consolidation phase', where exotic raw materials decrease (2003: 122-23). In their recent work on New World colonisation, K. Grafand T. Goebel corroborate these models: an early microblade technology made from high-quality distant sources marks the initial human exploration phase of the occupation of eastern Beringia, one millennium before a 'settling-in phase' characterised by a non-microblade technology based on local flint (2009: 74-75).

The northern French Alps and southern Jura, under the ice between 25 000 and 18 960 cal BP, are examples of ecological zones favourable to the analysis of the recolonisation process by Magdalenian groups. Based on Tolan-Smith's model in particular, we shall argue that the earliest occupation at the rockshelter of La Fru (Savoie, France) presents all the characteristics of a pioneering phase, while the later occupation corresponds to a phase of consolidation and spread of human groups all over the region.

The context

The retreat of the Wurm glaciers, starting around 22 000 cal BP in lowland zones, preceded a phase of erosion due to the substantial mass of sediments transported by water courses freed from the ice (Monjuvent & Nicoud 1988; Waelbroeck et al. 2001; Girardclos et al. 2005; now being explored by the CNRS-UMR 6249). One of the main consequences of the deglaciation in this region was the formation of gigantic postglacial lakes that encircled the south of the Jura and most of the pre-Alpine mountains (Evin et al. 1994) and limited the routes allowing access and circulation through to certain territories (Figure 1). The regeneration of vegetation began around 18 960-17 960 cal BP with the expansion of herbaceous steppe and heliophyte plants (Richard & Begeot 2000; Begeot et al. 2006), which favoured the return of the fauna and subsequently of humans.

Magdalenian archaeological sites concentrate in three regions: the southern Jura and the Bugey, the mountains of the Chartreuse, and the Vercors-Diois group (Figure 2). All the sites belonging to the end of the Upper Palaeolithic are located in areas of natural passes, usually at altitudes between 250m asl (NGF, French national datum) and 500m asl. However, several sites exist at higher altitudes, such as La Chenelaz, located 900m asl (Figure 2 no. 14) or the caves of Meaudre and La Passagere, located in the north of the Vercors mountains (Figure 2 no. 23). The spatial distribution of the Magdalenian setdements closely follows the availability in siliceous sources, which have been mapped in detail since the 1970s (Bintz 1995; Riche 1998; Affolter 2002; Feblot-Augustins 2002; Bressy 2003; Affolter & Bressy 2009). More than 230 primary and secondary flint sources have now been located, from the southern Jura to the southern Vercors.


A major [sup.14]C dating programme has permitted us to establish a more precise chronology of human occupation in this region (Oberlin & Pion 2009). Three phases of settlement can be distinguished. The first is dated to between 18 000 and 17 000 cal BP, the second between 17 000 and 16 450 cal BP and the third between 14 950 and 13 950 cal BP (Figure 3). …

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