The exhibition "Neanderthal, the European" will be present from November 15, 2014 to November 8, 2015 at the Departmental Museum of Prehistory of Île-de-France. She invites us to discover the story ofan extinct human species who lived on our territory. Known by name and by various recent subjects concerning him, such as that of DNA, Neanderthals remain for a large number of people an enigmatic being. Where did he live ? What did he look like? What was he eating? How did he live? When and why did he disappear? To have an answer to all these questions come and discover this fascinating man at the Museum of Prehistory in Nemours (77).
The exhibition “Neanderthal, the European” already presented in Namur (Belgium) arrives in Nemours (Seine-et-Marne). Well known by name, Neanderthals have for some time been seen as an inventor, endowed with a conscience and no longer as a bestial and ape-like being. The exhibition will therefore retrace the history of this Man by presenting the current state of knowledge while drawing on the archaeological remains discovered.
From beast to man
To start the visit, we enter a gallery of portraits of Neanderthals which will retrace the different conceptions that we had of him when he was discovered until today. At the time of the first archaeological discoveries, it is very difficult because of certain anatomical characteristics to consider it as an ancestral form of modern man. Seen as a boorish or even ape-like being, he is then represented as such. After this image of a savage bully, comes the vision of a being closer to us who follows the discoveries of their graves.
Currently, artists are emphasizing the humanity of Neanderthals more by drawing on the latest scientific work. This is visible in the drawings of Gilles Tosello or Benoît Clarys, but also in the live reconstructions of Elisabeth Daynès and the comics of Emmanuel Roudier.
The evolution of representations follows the various archaeological discoveries made around the world but also depends on subjective criteria. That said, these findings still do not allow us to answer certain questions such as: how were they dressed? Did they paint their bodies? This leaves a part of freedom to the artists.
We continue the visit upstairs where we will get to the heart of the matter and tackle one by one the major themes that will reveal everything about Neanderthals while making the link between current knowledge and archaeological remains.
Neanderthals are a descendant of the first humans who arrived in Europe from the Near East 500,000 years ago. From this date, the population of Europe intensified and archaeological discoveries show that we are in the presence of the ancestor of Neanderthals. We thus speak of pre-Neanderthals from -500,000 to -300,000 years old (like the Tautavel man for example).
Neanderthals developed during a period which corresponds to the Middle Paleolithic and which extends from -300,000 to -35,000 years. As it alternated between glacial and interglacial periods, it occupied practically all of Europe, as well as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Central Asia and Siberia.
Overall, Neanderthals resemble us. He has a squarer build and stockier limbs. An adult is 1.60 to 1.65 m tall and weighs 90 kg. The skull has its own characteristics. It is bulky and its cranial capacity is on average 1450 cm3 while that of modern humans is on average 1350 cm3. Seen from the front, his skull is large, his nose is high and his cheekbones receding. The eye sockets are rounded and high. Seen in profile, he is stretched out with a forehead receding backwards, he hardly has a chin. His teeth are bigger than ours.
Neanderthals have experienced many climatic fluctuations where successive very cold, glacial periods, and temperate, interglacial periods, equivalent to our current climate. Thus, the fauna and flora have changed according to these fluctuations. During the glacial phases, the environment was steppic, open, and they encountered among others mammoths and woolly rhinos, reindeer, lions, bears and also hyenas. During the interglacial phases, the climate warmed and they evolved in temperate forests with deer, deer, wild boar, aurochs, as well as lions and bears. The animal bones found by archaeologists on different French sites are a good illustration of the species that Neanderthals lived alongside.
Neanderthals lived in small groups to the rhythms of the seasons and the movements of herds and therefore frequently changed habitat in a territory. He was a nomad. Archeology reveals traces of encampment at the entrance to caves and on outdoor sites still near a water point. His diet was mainly carnivorous but that did not prevent him from consuming shellfish, fish and berries. Like his predecessors, he manufactured bifaces but above all developed tools on flakes with the so-called "Levallois" technique, which consists in preparing a block in order to obtain one or more flakes of predetermined shape whose cutting edge is very effective. .
The tools could be used for different tasks. For example the scraper (characteristic tool of Neanderthals), could be used to scrape skins, work wood or cut meat. The use of fire by Neanderthals is attested by the remains of burnt bones and flint, and by some rare traces of hearth.
Finally, their dress mode is still not known to us. Having lived during very cold periods, they had to dress but nothing proves it to us. Animal skins are perishable and can be stored very rarely. We do know, however, that they had the appropriate tools (bone punches, flint drills and scrapers) and that some, like the scraper, had signs of wear showing the work of the skin. As well as traces of flint tools on very poor bones in nutritive matter which seems to indicate a recovery of the skin.
The very large number of lithic remains presented in the display cases show us the different types of tools made and used by Neanderthals, as well as the various raw materials used. In addition, three videos show us the making of three tools from this Neanderthal culture: the Mousterian scraper, the Levallois flake and the denticulate, while specifying for each what they could be used for.
Neanderthals buried their dead. They built the first known burials in the Middle East around 100,000 years ago. Such practices can attest to the attention paid to the deceased and the concern to keep them away from scavenging animals. To date, about forty burials have been discovered and still in a context of rock shelters or caves. The deceased are men, women, children and very rarely accompanied by funeral objects.
Skull casts of Neanderthals are presented, such as that of a young boy discovered in Uzbekistan, another skull and a whole skeleton found in Israel but also the foot of a skeleton found in Dordogne on the site of La Ferrassie as well as photographs of the Man of the Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze). After having evoked the Neanderthal burials in the world, a zoom is made on those of the north-east of Aquitaine. It is in this region that one third of the known burials dated between -80,000 and -40,000 years are found. The four important sites discovered in the 19th century are presented: Le Moustier, La Ferrassie, Combe-Grenal and Pech de l'Azé.
Between -50,000 and -30,000 years, occurs the disappearance of the Neanderthals, the arrival of modern humans in Europe as well as cultural changes that show the entry into the period of the Upper Paleolithic. A few decades ago, one of the hypotheses put forward regarding the disappearance of the Neanderthals was linked to the arrival of Homo sapiens. It wouldn't be a coincidence. Currently, no trace of "war" has been found on the archaeological sites. Then, a less good adaptation to the climatic conditions of the last glaciation is also advanced but rejected because previously the life of Neanderthals was punctuated by climatic variations with very cold periods.
Other hypotheses have been put forward but to this day the disappearance of Neanderthals remains an enigma. The beginning of an answer could be found thanks to recent studies on DNA.
To end this visit, the emphasis is on the importance of preventive archeology in the discovery of Neanderthal sites in France. Examples from the southwest of France are given, such as the Bosses site in Lamagdelaine (Lot) or the Folie site in Poitiers (Vienne). A final focus is made on the contributions of preventive archeology in recent decades in the same region where the Departmental Museum of Prehistory is located: Ile-de-France. Close to the Museum, the Bossats site in Ormesson is the most detailed, it is there that one of the last groups of Neanderthals in Europe settled there approximately -45,000 years ago. Traces of hearths, burnt bones of mammoths and horses, flints were discovered there as well as, more rarely, dyes. Archaeologists have found more than a hundred fragments of ocher or hematite, some of them larger, with traces of scraping. The big question is: for what purpose? Assumptions are made such as the tanning of the skins or the coloring of the bodies. Some answers may perhaps be found with the continuation of the excavations.
This last part of the visit is always well accompanied by archaeological lithic remains as well as three original ocher fragments with traces of scraping.
Simple and clear scenography which perfectly highlights the archaeological remains which are the last elements that we have of this Neanderthal culture. Archaeological remains which come in great numbers to illustrate the words of the texts, very clear. All this also accompanied by an abundance of drawings by Benoît Clarys which illustrate and help to represent this Man, his way of life, his rites. As well as the real-size representation of Neanderthals made by Elisabeth Daynès. Maps, diagrams and photographs complete all this information.The large number of Neanderthal bone casts remains a bad point for people who have come to see the originals.
Very good points, however, with four short films which provide additional information during the visit and a fifth of 26 minutes which concludes the visit at the entrance to the Museum. Two screens present digital books, which is a plus to deepen the representations of Neanderthals and to visualize a discovery from the beginning of the 20th century through old photographs.
Finally, at the exit of the Museum we have the "Neanderton". This is a photo booth that will allow you to transform your face into a Neanderthal Man or Woman. You will be able to save this portrait by sending it to you directly by email!
This exhibition is therefore recommended for anyone interested from near or far in Prehistory and the history of this species that our ancestors encountered. Connoisseurs, amateurs and children, you will not be disappointed with this trip down memory lane.