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Ludovic Slimak

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. 


A collection of tools found in Grotte Mandrin of both Neanderthals and modern humans. The pointier tools were made by modern humans about 54,000 years ago. Image from Ludovic Slimak

By Daniel Dunaief

Two Stony Brook University researchers are helping a team of scientists rewrite the timeline of modern humans in Europe.

Prior to a ground breaking study conducted in the Rhône Valley in a cave called Grotte Mandrin in southern France, researchers had believed that homo sapiens — i.e. earlier versions of us — had arrived in Europe some time around 45,000 years ago.

Scientists had been studying the stone tools in this cave for close to 30 years that seemed inconsistent with the narrative that Neanderthals had exclusively occupied Europe at that point. Researchers found key evidence in this cave, including advanced tools and teeth that came from modern humans, that pushed the presence of modern humans back by about 10,000 years to about 56,800 years ago, while also indicating that the two types of humans interacted in the same place.

“This is a huge paradigm shift in our understanding of modern human origin expansion,” said Jason Lewis, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University and Assistant Director at the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya. “We can demonstrate that it was modern humans. We have a whole series of radiometric dates to shore that up 100 percent. Any method that was useful was applied” to confirm the arrival of homo sapiens in southern France.

Ludovic Slimak, CNRS researcher based at the University of Toulouse Jean Jaures, is the lead author on a 130-page paper that came out this week in Science Advances. Slimak has been exploring a site for 24 years that he describes as a kind of Neanderthalian Pompei, without the catastrophe of Mount Vesuvius erupting and preserving a record of the lives the volcano destroyed.

“This is a major turn, maybe one of the most important since a century,” Slimak explained in an email.

The early Homo sapiens travelers left behind clues about their presence in a rock shelter that alternately served as a home for Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in the same year.

“We demonstrate in our paper that there is less than a year, maybe a season (six months), maximal time between the last Neanderthal occupation in the cave and the first Sapiens settlement,” Slimak wrote. “This is a very, very short time!”

The scientists came to this conclusion after they developed a new way to analyze the soot deposits on the vault fragments of the cave roof, he added.

When modern humans arrived in the Rhône Valley, they likely turned to Neanderthals, who had occupied the area considerably longer, as scouts to guide them, Slimak suggested.

Homo sapiens likely traveled by boat to France at the same time that other Homo sapiens journeyed over the water to Australia, between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago.

“We know that when Mandrin groups reached western Europe, Eurasian populations perfectly master navigation at the other end of the continent,” Slimak explained in an email. “It is then very likely that these technologies were at this time period well known by all these populations.”

Different tools

In addition to fossils, scientists have focused on the tools that Homo sapiens produced and used. Homo sapiens likely used bows or spears with mechanical propulsion, while Neanderthals had heavy hand-cast spears, Slimak explained.

The modern human technology was “very impressive,” Slimak added. They are exactly the same technologies we found in the eastern Mediterranean at the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic in the same chronology [as] the Grotte Mandrin.”

The tools were small and pointed and looked like the kind of arrowheads someone might find when hiking along trails on Long Island, Lewis described. “It’s never been suggested or demonstrated that Neanderthals made bows and arrows or complex projectiles,” he said.

Once they discovered teeth of Homo sapiens, the researchers found the conclusive fossil proof of “who was there doing this,” Lewis said. “Even on a baby tooth, you can distinguish Neanderthals from modern humans.”

While researchers have excavated other caves in the Middle Rhône Valley region, they have not used such stringent methods, Lewis explained. “Mandrin is truly unique for the vision it gives us into this period of the past,” he explained in an email. He described Mandrin as more of a rock shelter than a cave, which is about 10 meters wide and eight meters deep.

The importance of timing

With the importance of providing specific dates for these discoveries, scientists who specialize in ancient chronology, such as Marine Frouin, joined the team.

Frouin, who started working in the Grotte Mandrin in 2014 when she was a post-doctoral fellow at the Luminescence Laboratory at the University of Oxford, looks for the presence of radioactive elements like potassium, thorium and uranium to determine the age of sediments. When these elements decay, they emit radiation, which the sediments accumulate.

Frouin likened the build up of radioactive elements in the grains to the process of charging a battery. Over time, the radioactive energy increases, providing a signal for the last time sunlight reached the sediment.

Indeed, when the sun reaches these grains, it eliminates the signal, which means that Frouin collected samples in lower light, transported them to a lab or facility in darkness, and then analyzed them in rooms that look like a photographer’s darkroom studio.

Frouin conducted the first of three approaches to determining the timing for these discoveries. She used luminescence on quartz, feldspar and flint and was the first one to obtain dates in 2014. Colleagues at the Université de Paris then conducted Thermoluminescence dating on burnt flint, while the lab of Andaine Seguin-Orlando at the University Paul Sabatier Toulouse 3 provided single grain dating.

The three labs “were able to combine all our results together and propose a very precise chronology for this site with very high confidence,” she explained in an email.

Frouin, who arrived at Stony Brook University in January of 2020, has designed and built her own lab, where she plans to study samples and advance the field of luminescence dating.

At this point, luminescence dating can provide the timing from a few hundred years ago to 600,000 years, beyond which the radioactive signal reaches its maximum brightness. Trained as a physicist, Frouin, however, is developing new techniques to find larger doses from grains that data at least over a million years old.

Journey to France

During this period of time on the Earth, the climate was especially cold. That, Lewis said, would favor the continued use of the cave by Neanderthals, who could have survived better under more challenging conditions.

At around 55,000 years ago, however, something may have shifted in the modern human population that allowed Homo sapiens to survive in a colder climate. These changes could include projectile weapons, more advanced clothing and/or social cooperation.

“These are all hypotheses we are dealing with,” Lewis said. “In this case, it seems like a tentative exploration by modern humans into Western Europe.”

The cave itself would have been especially appealing to Neanderthals or modern humans because of its geographic and topological features. For scientists, some of those same features also helped provide a chronological record to indicate when each of these groups lived in that space.

Near the cave, the Rhône River provides a way to travel. The cave itself is situated at a bottleneck through which groups of migrating animals such as horse, bison and deer traveled to follow their own food sources.

“It’s one of the most strategic points in Southern France,” Lewis said.

Indeed, Allied Forces during World War II recognized the importance of this site, landing in Provence on August 15, 1944. The progression into Europe mirrored the expansion of modern humans, said Lewis, who studies history and is particularly interested in WWII.

The site faces northwest in a part of the Rhône Valley in which the mistral wind, which is a cold and dry strong wind, can reach up to speeds of 60 miles per hour. During the glacial period, the wind blew dust that came off the tundra of northern Europe, filling the cave with fine grain sediment that helped preserve the site. Using that dust, scientists determined that Neanderthals had occupied that cave for almost 100,000 years. Around 55,000 years ago, modern humans showed up, who were replaced again by Neanderthals.

A resident of Stony Brook, Lewis lives with his wife Sonia Harmand, who is in the same department at Stony Brook and with whom he has collaborated on research, and their daughter Scarlett.

A native of Dover, Pennsylvania, Lewis decided to study evolution after reading a coffee table book at a friend’s house when he was 13 that included descriptions of the work of the late paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. After reading that book, Lewis said evolution made sense to him and he was eager to participate in the search for evidence of the changes that led to modern humans.

His first field experience was in a Neanderthal site in France, where he also traveled to the Turkana basin in Kenya for a project directed by Rutgers University. Ultimately, he wound up working for Rutgers and has conducted considerable research in Kenya as well.

“After working at Rutgers, I came to Stony Brook to work for [Richard Leakey in a field school at [what would become] the Turkana Basin Institute,” he said. The combination of his earlier aspirations to join Leakey, his first research field experiences including time in France and Kenya, and his eventual work with Leakey and his role at TBI were a part of his “circle of life.”

Lewis is thrilled to be a part of the ongoing effort to share information discovered in a cave he called a “magical place. The satisfaction at being there is high.”

For Slimak, the years of work at the site have been personally and professionally transformational. After taking necessary breaks from the rigors of excavating on the cave floor, he is now more comfortable sleeping on a hard floor than on a soft mattress.

Professionally, Slimak described this paper as the culmination of 32 years of continuous scientific efforts, which includes a “huge amount of very important unpublished data” that include social, cultural, economic and historical organization of these populations.

The current paper represents “only the visible part of the iceberg and many important enlightenment and other fascinating discoveries from my team will be made available in the coming months and years.”

A tough beginning

A native of Bordeaux, France, Frouin had a tough start to her work at Stony Brook. She arrived two months before the pandemic shut down many businesses and services, including driving schools and social security offices.

When she arrived, she didn’t have a driver’s permit or a credit history, which meant that she relied on the kindness and support of her colleagues and transportation from car services to pick up necessities like groceries.

A resident of Port Jefferson, Frouin, who enjoys playing electric guitar and does oil painting when she’s not studying sediments, said it took just under a year to get her American driver’s license.

Frouin, who has an undergraduate and a graduate student in her lab and is expecting to add another graduate student soon, appreciates the opportunity to explore the differences between the north and south shore of Long Island. 

As for her contribution to this work, she said this effort was “extremely exciting. I’m doing what I wanted to do since I was a kid. We were able to answer many questions that maybe 20 years ago, we weren’t able to answer.”