Grotte de Cussac in Dordogne is an archaeological site that keeps on giving.
Known for cave art so impressive that the French Ministry of Culture has classified it a national heritage site, it also has offered up the remains of at least six humans also dated to between 25,000 and 30,000 years ago.
Researchers say that, with one possible exception, it is the only known example of human remains interred so deep within a cave that also contains artworks – and after 10 years of painstaking work an international team has revealed some interesting quirks.
First, the bodies were deliberately placed in former bear hibernation nests – a practice not documented before – and in two of the three locations the nests, which form hollowed areas on the cave floor, show signs of first being covered with red ochre.
Second, there is evidence the bodies were arranged in a particular way and moved after death. In some instances, remains of more than one individual are intermingled.
“In the Cussac Cave, the use of ochre in burials shows symbolic behaviour, as does the deposition of human remains in a cave decorated with art,” says Eline Schotsmans from Australia’s University of Wollongong, who has expertise in funerary practices and burial taphonomy – the study of human decomposition.
“There was an intentional selection of certain bones. For example, in most depositions no crania were present, but teeth were, which shows the crania were deliberately taken. This reveals that the people of this time were dealing with their dead, were manipulating the dead and looking after the deceased.”
The number of individuals interred in the cave and the absence of children and infants also is revealing.
“This tells us something about the society and social differentiation, because only a part of society receives this special treatment,” Schotsmans says. “Why were these six individuals deposited in the cave? Where are the other deceased? Why only teenagers and adults? Were those people different from others, and why?”
The research, which was led by Jacques Jaubert from France’s University of Bordeaux and is described in a paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was more complex than usual because of the status of the cave and its 800 figurative engravings of animals and humans.
Research had to be conducted on site and only by observation. Researchers were only allowed in a few months of each year because of high carbon dioxide levels, and they had to wear cleaned and sterilised protective suits and gumboots.
“Any microorganism or fungus we bring in might have a negative influence on the conservation of the cave,” says Schotsmans.
“Everything in the cave is fully protected including the surface of the cave, which is the original paleo surface. We can’t touch anything. We can only walk on a single, narrow path and have to conduct all research from that path.
“It is surprising how much information you can get from observations only.”
Nick Carne is editor of Cosmos digital and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.
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