History Files

European Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Châtelperronian Culture (Upper Palaeolithic) (Europe)
c.43,000 - 39,000 BC

This was one of Europe's earliest cultures, set in the Upper Palaeolithic (Late Old Stone Age). However, it isn't the earliest human culture overall, as it only succeeds a much broader one called the Afro-Eurasian Mousterian, and perhaps the Bohunician too.

IndexUncertainty (and some controversy) exists when it comes to assigning this culture entirely (or even at all) to anatomically-modern humans as there seems to have been heavy Neanderthal involvement (the Mousterian is certainly a Neanderthal culture - and see the 'Prehistoric World' index link, right, for more on the pre-modern human world).

Given the fact that there has also been some Neanderthal involvement in modern human reproduction in Europe (perhaps two-to-four percent overall as proven by DNA testing), then the controversy is easy to dismiss. The Neanderthals probably have as much right to be here as the modern humans who were arriving from the Near East. In fact, the best solution may be to assign this culture to Neanderthals and say that humans inherited it at a late stage.

The Châtelperronian period gained its name from the site of la Grotte des Fées in Châtelperron, Allier, in France. It refers to one of five stone tool industries which have been identified for the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe (43,000-18,000 BC). Although it is generally assigned as the earliest of the five industries, the Châtelperronian is now recognised as being fairly equal with and perhaps even a little later than the Aurignacian period, although both are associated with the Middle Palaeolithic to Upper Palaeolithic transition, between around 43,000-31,000 BC.

It has also been attached to the Perigordian, an attempt to join together several cultures or industries to show continuity within Europe. The attempt has largely been discredited or dismissed.

A little after the very end of that transition, the last Neanderthals in Europe died out (during the Gravettian period). They were in serious trouble from around 35,000 BC onwards, the result of a not-necessarily-peaceful cultural transition of European ownership from the long-established Neanderthal residents to the new influx of early modern humans from the Near East.

FeatureWhen first described and defined in the early twentieth century, the Châtelperronian was believed to be the work of early modern humans (then known as Cro-Magnon) who, it was thought, had descended directly from Neanderthals (a theory which has now been completely quashed, and see feature link for more on human evolution and expansion).

The split between middle and Upper Palaeolithic is a distinct one, with great advances in the range of stone tool types and also with raw materials - the Upper Palaeolithic has tools and objects which are made of bone, teeth, ivory, and antler, none of which were seen in the Middle Palaeolithic. The change in technology is now associated with the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe.

Homo Neanderthalis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Who were the makers of the Châtelperronian culture? O Bar-Yosef & J-G Bordes (Journal of Human Evolution, 2010), from A Cognitive and Neurophysical Perspective on the Chatelperronian, F L Coolidge & T Wynn T (Journal of Archaeological Research, 2004), from Human Choices and Environmental Constraints: Deciphering the variability of large game procurement from Mousterian to Aurignacian times (MIS 5-3) in southwestern France, E Discamps, J Jaubert, & F Bachellerie (Quaternary Science Reviews, 2011), from Neanderthal Acculturation in Western Europe? A Critical Review of the Evidence and its Interpretation, F D d'Errico, J Zilhao, M Julien, D Baffier, & J Pelerin (Current Anthropology Supplement to 39, 1998), and from External Links: Neanderthals manufactured Châtelperronian amid cultural diffusion with humans, study finds (2012), and Science.)

c.43,000 BC

The Châtelperronian culture emerges as a Western European expression of the previous pan-Afro-Eurasian Mousterian culture. It is centred primarily in central and south-western France and extends into northern Spain. Stone tools are produced in the same way as before but with ivory adornments.

They appear to be part of the Aurignacian culture, and it has been suggested that nearby, newly-arrived groups of modern humans, are influencing Neanderthal groups. However, the finds predate the Aurignacian and quite possibly also the arrival of modern humans this far west.

Chatelperronian tools
Châtelperronian Neanderthal bone artefacts from the Grotte du Renne (Arcy-sur-Cure, France), which experts suggest only became sophisticated after Neanderthals were influenced by early human arrivals in Western Europe

At about the same time, populations of Homo sapiens have already colonised areas of Siberia. The discovery in 2008 of fossilised human bones at Ust-Ishim leads to the oldest sequenced human genome to date (2016). Genetically he just barely postdates the Neanderthal introgression into modern humans (cross-breeding between the two species).

Almost as soon as modern humans arrive in northern Eurasia, they clearly make themselves at home in harsh climates. Ust-Ishim is at about the latitude of Stockholm or Juneau in Alaska, and the temperature is comparable with that of today.

c.41,000 BC

Starvation and cannibalism could be part of everyday life for a population of Neanderthals living in northern Spain around this time. Eight Neanderthal skeletons are found in an underground cave system at El Sidron in Asturias, and bones and teeth found here bear the hallmarks of a tough struggle for survival.

Neanderthal sites
Principal sites showing the most recent evidence of Neanderthals - notice how the later populations are all congregated in Iberia

FeatureSigns of starvation or malnutrition in childhood are evident (see feature link). Neanderthal Mousterian implements disappear abruptly from Europe's archaeological record with the passing of Neanderthal man.

c.34,000 BC

The archaeological site of St Césaire (sometimes formerly known as La Roche-à-Pierrot) is a limestone rock shelter in the Charente-Maritimes département of south-western France (close to the Bay of Biscay). In one of the early levels (EJOP), a nearly complete Neanderthal skeleton is discovered in 1979.

It is apparently in direct association with a Châtelperronian tool kit, which has previously been considered a Homo sapiens construction alone. Some doubt is cast on the association by the realisation that the burial cuts across two layers, meaning that the tool kit could be a later addition to the site, perhaps left behind by a human group.

A partial Neanderthal secondary burial (secondary meaning that the individual has died elsewhere and has been brought back to the cave for interment) is direct-dated to this period, making St Césaire one of the most recent Neanderthal sites outside of Spain, although not as recent as that of Gorham's Cave.

The Pyrenees as seen from the national park on the French side of the border
The Pyrenees (as seen here from the national park on the French side of the border) has presented a considerable obstacle to many migrating groups but there are paths across it

Today, St Césaire is considered evidence of co-existence between modern humans and Neanderthals, a coexistence which is not always consistently pleasant. Stable isotope analysis of the human remains suggests that the Neanderthal residents rely primarily on large-bodied herbivores, including woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and, to a lesser degree, reindeer.

c.34,000 BC

With Neanderthal involvement even in the later stages of the Châtelperronian culture now coming to an end outside of Iberia, its modern human inheritors gradually transition to the Aurignacian culture to replace it.

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