Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints

The Old Man
In 1908, three priests found the most complete Neandertal skeleton that had ever been unearthed.  Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie and L. Bardon found the remains buried in a small cave next to the graveyard in the tiny French town of La Chapelle-aux-Saints. Over time, Bardon and the Bouyssonie brothers' discovery became known as The Old Man of La Chapelle.
The Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints was found in the cave behind the blue tarp. The hand holding a biface is a monument erected in 2008 to mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery.

Cast of the Old Man's skull
The discovery generated controversy, and since the discoverers were priests they suffered particular criticism and ridicule in the press.  The initial reconstruction of the Old Man by the paleontologist Marcellin Boule didn't do the men any favours.  No one had seen such a complete Neandertal skeleton before, and when Boule added flesh to the bones he created a stooping, bent kneed, fur-covered creature with divergent big toes that looked more ape than human.  It was the original monkey man and helped establish the stereotype of the brutish dimwitted caveman.

Drawings of the cave and the position of the burial in the shallow depression at its base. (detail of interpretive panel)
Boule's 1911-1913 Reconstruction
Over the past century, the skeleton has been re-examined and re-interpreted several times.  In the 1950s, it was discovered that the Old Man had suffered from arthritis, and perhaps this had mislead Boule in his reconstruction.   But even that wouldn't account for all the primitive features that he gave the creature.  Today, its seems that Boule was operating under a preconceived notion of what a Neandertal should look like and he fit the fragmentary remains of the Old Man into that model.  Its too bad, he was obviously a talented anatomist and the bust he created of the Old Man's musculature, without any hair or apish post-cranial features is a remarkable portrait of a human being.

The reconstruction of the burial inside the Museum.  The interpreter who guided us through the museum was fantastic.

Quartz artifacts 
The story of the Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints is presented in the Musée de l'Homme de Néandertal in La Chapelle-aux-Saints.  A reconstruction of the skeleton as it was found curled in the fetal position in a shallow depression inside the small limestone cave is the centerpiece of the museum.  The original bones are in Paris.  The Old Man was the Neandertal type specimen and La Chapelle-aux-Saints is discussed in nearly every introductory archaeology and Physical anthropology textbook ever written, but the story told in the Musée de l'Homme de Néandertal is a very personal story of the discovery of an exceptional find by local priests.

The museum had lots of hands-on interpretive materials for visiting schoolkids.  If I had a regret from this trip it was that I didn't find any flint to bring home.

Dr. Gyula Skultety's Reconstruction 1996
By their nature, human remains tell a very personal story.  The Old Man may have lived up to 60,000 years ago, but the inferences made from his remains suggest he was part of a family who cared for him in life.  Most of his teeth were missing and had been missing for so long that the bone along the gum line had healed over.  Given Neandertal's meat heavy diet, its been suggested that the Old Man may not have been able to feed himself without some difficulty.  Perhaps someone was grinding or pre-chewing his food for him.
Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie and L. Bardon found the Old Man in the cave with the tarp in front of it.

The cows who watch the caves
The cave itself is about 2km away from the museum.  Its one of a series of 5 or 6 small limestone caves that are visible from the side of the road.  They are protected by a fence, but are still clearly visible from the paths leading past them.  Cattle graze in a pasture on the other side of the road.   Over the years the other caves have been excavated and artifacts have been found in them, but no other burials have been found at the site.

Panorama of the fenced off slope containing the cave.  The scaffolding and awnings are built over other caves that have been the subject of excavation over the past century.

Diagram of the burial within the cave
This fall, there is a team excavating in the original cave and according to the interpreter in the museum, they are looking at the soil to help date the site and determine if the shallow depression that the Old Man was found in was made naturally or by Neandertal hands.  Unfortunately they are only working on weekends and we visited the site on a Tuesday so we didn't have a chance to chat with the researchers.  After 100 years, there are still stories coming out of La Chapelle-aux-Saints.

The site is immediately next to the road, graveyard and church property in La Chapelle-aux-Saints.

 Photo Credits:
1-11, 13, 14: Tim Rast (Photos from inside the Musée de l'Homme de Néandertal in La Chapelle-aux-Saints and the La Chapelle-aux-Saints cave site.)
12: Lori White


  1. I've been following your adventures and looking up the geocaches near each of these locations. Very cool!

  2. Geocaching did cross my mind in Sarlat, but we didn't follow up on it. Although just finding these sites was a lot like geocaching. We'd find the coordinates online for the next site we wanted to visit or our hotel for the night and the GPS would guide us there. La Chapelle aux Saints is a tiny town, but we managed to stick to known roads all the way there. Honestly, without the GPS or a guide who knew the area, its would be very tricky finding a lot of these places. There are no straight roads in France.

  3. Very good article, Tim. Thank you so much!

  4. Thanks for reading! This is one of those places that I never imagined that I'd get to see. It didn't disappoint.

  5. As regards the Dordogne flint - I hate to admit that when I was there back in 1988 (pre college) I was a budding flintknapper and we were on a canoe trip down the Dordogne. I found lots of great flint to knap!

    What's embarrassing is that I probably created lots of Achulean handaxe sites on my way down the river. In my defense I did not know any better, most of my flintknapping was directly next to the river where I found the flint (and has since washed away), and finally, I'd hope that any archaeologist worth his/her salt could figure out that my 'sites' were not 50,000 years old.

    But still, not a proud moment.


  6. A canoe trip down the Dordogne sounds amazing - what a great way to see the country side, I must remember that for next time.

    Yeah, when I was a kid in southern Alberta I used to smash rocks together in the fields waiting for my dad to get off the tractor. They were mostly quartzite glacial cobbles and I'd pick two, pretend they were wrestlers and throw them at each other until one broke. The one that didn't break was the winner and I'd look for a new challenger. I did that for years.

    A little while later I started working on archaeology sites in the area and saw the sorts of lithic scatters that were typical and thought; "Uh oh..."


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