Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A Cave In Jersey Which Records The Full History Of The Neanderthals

La Cotte de St Brelade Cave, Jersey was once
home to thousands of generation of Neanderthals
New research at the iconic cave of La Cotte de St Brelade on the Channel Island of Jersey has shed light upon the history of the Neanderthals. We know that Homo neanderthalensis  evolved around 600,000 years ago from its ancestor Homo heidelbergensis in Europe and died out around 25,000 years ago. La Cotte de St Brelade records Neanderthal life from almost 300,000 years ago, the date when true Neanderthal characteristics appeared, for 250,000 years to 30,000 years ago when the species was in decline.

A vast hoard of stone tools of all ages within the boundaries above have been discovered within the cave and ravine system. Excavations in La Cotte de St Brelade actually began around 100 years ago. However new archaeological advances since the last finds in the 1970s have allowed scientists to analyse the cave and the artefacts fully. The results of their work are incredible. Instead of a brief glimpse of Neanderthal lifestyle from a few isolated stone tools, scientists were able to see how hundreds of generations of Neanderthal existed in varied ecological conditions throughout the cold and warm spells of the last great ice age.

During this time, sea levels were lower and a vast land bridge connected the Channel Islands with France and Britain. The caves systems would have been sheltered, providing these early humans with protection from the freezing, sub zero winds of ice age Europe. Geologists were able to analyse the sediments within the collapsed network of tunnels to study the climatic, ecological and environmental conditions over 250,000 years. By combining these results with the data from the stone tools, they were able to study the lifestyle of Neanderthals.

A flint arrow head from La Cotte de St Brelade
It seems that during the coldest spells, the Neanderthals abandoned the cave for the warmer conditions of Southern Europe. Such results have given scientists greater insight into the limits of the species. The tools themselves just add to the growing pile of evidence that Neanderthals were master craftsmen rather than primitive beasts. The tools consisted of hand axes and small blades in numbers that topped 250,000. Marks on the edges showed that they were constantly reworked. Nothing was left to waste.

'The site is the most exceptional long term record of Neanderthal behaviour in North West Europe' says Dr Matt Pope from the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London. His colleague, Dr Martin Bates from the University of Wales, Trinity St Davids, continued with 'we are also starting to look beyond the site with the purpose of attempting to find new sites preserved on the sea bed.' During the ice age, sea levels were of course lower, meaning that Neanderthals could have inhabited what is now the sea bed.

Bates went on to say ' we know from work around the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy that such sites exist and if we were lucky enough to find similar sites around Jersey, it would add significantly to our understanding of the Neanderthals and their landscape. The BBC are doing several documentaries on archaeological sites in Britain, including the La Cotte de St Brelade cave on Jersey. The series will air on BBC 2 In early September.