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Grotte Mandrin France

Victoria Greening at the Grotte Mandrin site in France. Photo by Svenya Drees

By Daniel Dunaief

Last summer, the Anthropology Department at Stony Brook University brought 13 students to the south of France to help gather information from a rich archaeological site called the Grotte Mandrin.

Asa Wong-Gómez at the Grotte Mandrin site in France. Photo by Nicholas Gonzalez

The trip with the Field School through SBU Study Abroad enabled the students to work in the field and gather information from a site that has provided a treasure trove of information about Neanderthals and Homo sapiens from 54,000 years ago.

The students found the trip successful, inspirational and, at times, exhausting.

“I did archeology all summer,” said Asa Wong-Gómez, a senior anthropology major at Stony Brook, who spent time in Kenya before joining the team in France. “It was really cool.”

Wong-Gómez recalled the thrill of finding teeth and stones in the dirt. “The first day, everyone’s first find was super exciting,” he said.

The field expedition, which was the first Stony Brook ran at this site, enabled students to forge connections with each other and with the site’s leaders, including Stony Brook Lecturer Jason Lewis, Ludovic Slimak, cultural anthropologist at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, and Laure Metz, an archaeologist at Aix-Marseille University.

Victoria Greening at the Zooarcheological Training and Research Laboratory. Photo by Nicholas Gonzalez

“Working with everyone so closely for that month definitely builds really strong connections that have lasted since,” said Victoria Greening, who graduated from Stony Brook in the winter and is planning to start a Master’s program in the fall at the University of Oxford.

She appreciated the opportunity to be a part of new discoveries.

“Working with something that’s not in the written records and discovering it yourself was a privileged feeling,” said Greening, who grew up in Yaphank.

A happy grown up

Echoing Gollum from the “Lord of the Rings” series, Slimak would look at something a student found and say, “my precious, this goes in a special bag,” Wong-Gómez recalled.

Slimak reflected the joy he took in discovering compelling finds. “It was amusing, watching a grown adult be so happy,” Wong-Gomez said.

Eva Marsh, who is a senior at Stony Brook in the anthropology department, appreciated the excitement of finding flint. A couple of students, she recalled, also found teeth, including a horse’s tooth. The group discovered a massive core, from which early Homo sapiens would chip off pieces to construct arrows they would shoot from a bow to bring down buffalo or horses.

On the first night gathering at their summer accommodations, Marsh said the group looked up at a star-filled sky.

“There was not a lot of pollution there” or other lights, which was “really amazing,” Marsh said.

Marsh was nervous on her first day, as she didn’t know what to expect. The team played games for the first few nights and discussed why they all signed up for the field experience. Each night at dinner, they discussed the events of the day, Marsh recalled.

Svenya Drees at the Grotte Mandrin site. Photo by Victoria Greening

For Svenya Drees, who grew up in Port Jefferson and is a Master’s Student in Lewis’s lab, the experience was familiar, as she had conducted field work during the summer of 2021. “I knew what to expect,” she said. Still, she found the discovery of pebbles from a distant river intriguing.

“There’s this whole mystery at the site about pebbles that made it into the assemblage,” Drees said. “These rocks were brought there from the local river. I thought that was pretty awesome.”

The theory about the pebbles is that Neanderthals or Homo sapiens, who had lived in the cave at different times, deployed the pebbles to help remove flakes from the rock cores these ancient ancestors used to create weapons.

Some challenges

While the students enjoyed the experience, with many of them planning to continue in their anthropological studies, the summer included some challenges.

The students stayed in a house at the top of a hill. At the same time, the cave was also on a hill. Each morning, they walked down the hill to a car that drove them to the bottom of the Grotte Mandrin site, where they walked about 15 minutes up to the field station. At the end of the day, they had to climb back up to their temporary home.

“After digging holes all day, walking up the hill was not my favorite part,” Wong-Gómez said. Greening suggested that future participants in the program, which will also run this summer, bring sturdy shoes.

The students also sometimes carried heavy containers filled with sand. The physical challenges notwithstanding, most of the students eagerly anticipate future such explorations.

“It’s definitely the right field for me,” said Greening. “Working at Mandrin solidified that for me.”

Wong-Gómez hopes to continue his field work at the University of Florida. The university has accepted him as a PhD student, although he is awaiting word on whether he gets funding.

“When I got the email that I was accepted, it didn’t feel real,” Wong-Gómez said. “I really want to do this.”

A reconstruction by Ludovic Slimak of the arrows Homo sapiens likely used 54,000 years ago in France. Credit: Ludovic Slimak

By Daniel Dunaief

Have bow and arrow, will travel, even in Eurasia 54,000 years ago.

An archaeological site in the south of France that’s 70 miles from the coastline called Grotte Mandrin not only provided evidence that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals lived in this area around the same time, but also offered proof that early humans used bow and arrows to hunt for prey like bison and wild horses.

Jason Lewis. Photo from SBU

In research published in the journal Science Advances, Jason Lewis, a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University; Ludovic Slimak, cultural anthropologist at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès; and Laure Metz, an archaeologist at Aix-Marseille University, shared an extensive analysis of stone artifacts that demonstrated the use of bows and arrows.

These hunting tools, which inhabitants of the cave could use to pursue herd animals migrating between the Mediterranean region and the plains of Northern Europe, provide the earliest evidence of mechanically propelled projectile technology from Eurasia.

“We looked for diagnostic evidence of a very powerful impact once the stone tip hits something,” said Lewis. “We can see experimentally what type of damage” is produced on the tips of the arrows. The damage to these arrows is in line with everything that modern archers are doing because the tools human ancestors used were so light, Lewis added.

The collaborative effort to study these arrows in labs across two continents involved an extensive analysis of the flaking pattern around the tips of the arrows. The researchers didn’t find any of the organic materials that the early hunters would have used to create the bow.

This technology, which likely took about an hour to make, likely enabled Homo sapiens to bring down prey. Effective hunting from about 10 to 20 yards likely would have required more than one arrow, particularly with the size and strength of the targets.

At an archaeological site in the Middle East, scientists described stone tools around the same time that look similar to the bows and arrows humans in Eurasia used.

“The evolving modern humans were developing and using projectile technology,” Lewis said.  

Cultural differences

Lewis, Slimak and Metz showed in a seminal paper last year that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had lived in the same cave, sometimes separated by a year or even a season.

While these two types of humans lived around the same time and in the same place, they didn’t share the same technology or have the type of cultural exchange that would enable Neanderthals, who typically hunted with hand-thrown spears, to use the same hunting tools.

“There’s no evidence of learning exchange,” Lewis said. Neanderthals did not start using the smaller points typical of the arrows or that would have been used as projectiles.

“It doesn’t look like there was a cultural exchange between the two groups,” Lewis said, as the artifacts from the time Neanderthals occupied the cave didn’t include any arrows.

Cultures sometimes develop identities that preclude using technology from other groups. Such cultural differences existed in the Maale and neighboring Tsamai people in Southwestern Ethiopia.

“Even though [bows and arrows] might be logically or objectively advantageous, some cultures suggest that ‘that’s not what we do,’” Lewis said.

Indeed, cultural differences have occurred in other areas that groups haven’t bridged, despite the availability of similar resources and the chance to learn the technology.

At the cave in Grotte Mandrin, researchers found a large collection of stone tools in Layer E of the cave.

The scientists believe the numerous arrows could have been the early equivalent of a munitions dump.

While bows and arrows would have provided a hunting advantage to Homo sapiens, the technology doesn’t explain why the two groups of early humans occupied the cave or dominated the area at different times.

“I doubt it comes down strictly to stone tool technology,” Lewis said. “There’s not a continuous march of occupation and expansion” as the interactions between the two populations were long lasting and complex.

Homo sapiens and Neanderthals moved up into a region and then moved back. This is akin to the way European settlers interacted with Native Americans when ships first crossed the Atlantic.

The Europeans moved into the region, interacted with people who already in the country, returned home, and then, at a later point crossed the ocean again.

Arrow studies

To understand the technology used to create these arrows, Metz and Slimak have spent years studying the way rocks flake off or get damaged in response to contact with animals or objects they hit when shot through the air.

Working for over a decade, Metz has been conducting experimental replication of the effect of use on these stone tools.

Scientists who shoot these stone arrows into carcasses from butcher shops can see the flaking pattern and scratches on the arrows.

Lewis explained that the flaking on the arrow heads could not have been made during the creation of the arrows themselves.

“Only high velocity strikes” could produce such markings, Lewis said.

These kinds of studies combine geology, physics and natural science. Lewis said John Shea, Anthropology Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Stony Brook University, has pioneered the study of such technology during the Pleistocene Ice Ages.

Lewis explained that his primary role is to bring the contextual understanding about how various types of early humans were using the landscape and interacting with the animals.

He also brings the context of work he does in Africa around the same time period as a comparator.

Lewis explained that more research would be forthcoming from this site.

“This is part of a larger modern human ability to conceptualize the world,” Lewis said. Early humans were trying to change their environment to match their needs, with boats, clothing, dwelling structures and other elements of their lives.

Such tool use could reduce hunting time and could enable a greater division of labor, suggesting that “each person didn’t have to do everything” to meet basic needs.