Where Did Neanderthals Go On Holiday?

La Cotte de St Brelade. Credit: Dr Sarah Duffy

La Cotte de St Brelade. Credit: Dr Sarah Duffy

It might sound like the start of a joke, but archaeologists believe that Neanderthals had a soft spot for Jersey

Jersey is a popular holiday destination for tourists today, and it turns out that Neanderthals also liked to visit, so much so that they kept coming back for over 100,000 years.

Researchers led by the University of Southampton have been re-examining artefacts and mammoth bones originally excavated from La Cotte de St Brelade, one of the most important Neanderthal sites in North-West Europe. By studying how the tools were used, and the raw materials they were made from, they’ve been matching them against the surrounding geology of the seabed to map where Neanderthals travelled from, and what resources would have been available to them.

A ‘special place’

La Cotte (or cave) de St Brelade is a hugely important prehistoric site, and could be one of the last known places that Neanderthals survived in North-West Europe. The deposits of hundreds of thousands of Neanderthal stone tools found within the cave, along with the remains of their animal prey, give a significant insight into how Neanderthal communities lived and adapted to the key climate and landscape changes, that transformed Jersey from mainland to the island it is today.

Archaeologists believe that La Cotte was a ‘special place’ for Neanderthals, though the reason the site remained persistent in their minds is unclear. Dr Beccy Scott of the British Museum suggests it might have been due to the island being a highly visible landmark in the landscape, or that the Neanderthal communities remembered that shelter could be found there, and passed that knowledge on from generation to generation.

Dedicated travellers

The landscapes the Neanderthals once travelled to reach Jersey are now inaccessible to modern humans, lying submerged beneath the sea. Significantly though, the changes in climate which led to the flooding of this coastal plain began occurring during the Neanderthal occupation. Despite the challenges this would have created, the evidence shows that they persisted in their migrations to and from the site, right up until around 40,000 years ago, when the last Neanderthal communities are believed to have died out.

Using new methods to study the artefacts, and new technologies to map the changes in the surrounding geology, the team were able to reconstruct the environment of the La Cotte Neanderthals, unearthing clues that they travelled the same paths again and again, from the reoccurring use of certain geological materials in their tools.

Adapt to survive

As well as mapping the travelling habits of this group of Neanderthals, the project highlights that homo sapiens are not the only species of human to have adapted successfully to major environmental change. Significantly, these findings go some way to demonstrate that these changes to environment alone, weren’t the sole cause for Neanderthal extinction.

Collective memory

The fact that Neanderthals kept coming back to the same destination shows that we are not alone in attaching cultural significance to features in our landscape. Though we can’t be sure exactly what made generation after generation of Neanderthals return to Jersey, it could be suggested that the site formed an key part of the collective memory and cultural identity of the community, and was one of such significance that they’d battle extreme climate change to reach it.

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Written by Rosanna Ring

Rosanna is one of DigVentures' intrepid Community Archaeologists. She's busy turning Barrowed Time (our dig at Morecambe's Bronze Age burial mound) into a real seaside adventure, and getting the Pop-Up Museum on the Prom ready for you to visit!

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