We all occupy a world in which particular places remain important to individuals and societies for thousands of years. The world around these places may alter beyond all recognition, but certain places seem to demand both our attention and physical return for generations.
In research we recently published, we suggest that this cultural phenomenon is not unique to modern humans. From at least a quarter of a million years ago, Neanderthal populations can be seen to have persistently and deliberately returned to particular places over tens of thousands of years. This is despite radical climate-driven changes in environment and landscapes.
Our study focused on one such site: La Cotte de St Brelade in Jersey in the Channel Islands. This cave and ravine system is on a granite headland on the modern coast and was repeatedly occupied by Neanderthals between 240,000 and 40,000 years ago. It provides lots of evidence for repeated visits to the site. This includes hundreds of thousands of stone tools and butchered animal bone.
At times, visits to La Cotte were short but frequent – stopovers by groups moving around a wide area and bringing their tools with them. In other periods visits were longer, though less frequent, with Neanderthals sourcing material from the local area to produce tools.
Decoding the behaviours taking places during each occupation and reading this record against changing sea level, climate and vegetation, gives us vivid glimpse of how early Neanderthals explored, knew and mapped their world. What we see looks remarkably deliberate and responsive to changes in the world around these Neanderthal groups.
During the 200,000 years Neanderthals were using La Cotte, sea levels were often lower than they are today – sometimes radically so. In cool periods they travelled to the site over lightly wooded and open landscapes now submerged beneath the English Channel, a landscape we call La Manche.
We see them remaining as the climate cooled further, only disappearing during the coldest conditions, periods in which the cave fills with sterile wind-blown dust. We also find them present in very different landscapes when the temperatures were warmer and Jersey became a striking high-point in a wide coastal plain connected to France.
A lost world
From this one site we can understand the changing landscapes the Neanderthals moved through to reach the site. Stone tools found at La Cotte were maintained and transported in different ways as a result of changes to the landscape and the available rock sources. A wide variety of such raw materials are found in the areas surrounding Jersey.
The island itself is made up of igneous and metamorphic rocks, rather than the sedimentary geologies containing flint, the prized raw material for the La Cotte Neanderthals. To get at the flint, Neanderthals travelled between 10km and 20km north to sources between Jersey and Guernsey, now drowned by raised inter-glacial sea levels. Studying the changes in the raw materials used, mapping their source and understanding how tools were used and transported allows us to map Neanderthal landscape use and how it changes through time.
Its compelling that, despite these changes, La Cotte always seems to have been an important place in Neandethal itineraries. The nature of their visits varied – from short-term visits, deliberately travelling in from some distance away, to longer-term activity at the site itself and within the surrounding area. But while the specific way in which Neanderthal groups used this particular place and the surrounding area varied, all their visits involved deliberate, repeated and structured movements through these landscapes to La Cotte. This is clearly not the result of random drift, but of hominins who could, and did, mentally map their world.
The mind of a Neanderthal
Repetitively occupied “persistent places”, such as La Cotte de St Brelade, give us a rare opportunity to consider how Neanderthals structured their world over long periods of time. They persistently returned to La Cotte not only because of the practical features it possessed (prospect, shelter, a visible way-marker on route-ways through the landscape), but because of the social importance it acquired from being used time and again. A little like we might ritually return to a certain holiday destination year after year.
More than this, modification of the place by Neanderthals and provision of it with raw materials, including abandoned stone tools and animal bone, is a form of is niche-construction – the very act of occupying such places changes them as places. This is an an important ecological strategy which would have, in turn, increased the likelihood of them staying at particular places. This dynamic interaction between people and place is almost certainly a deep-rooted one, going back to the earliest accumulations of stone artefacts in the landscape.
The persistent use of particular locations we see at La Cotte begins to happen around the world between 500,000 and 125,000 years ago. This occurs alongside other significant behavioural changes, such as the controlled use of fire, new stone tool technologies and more efficient protein acquisition through selective hunting.
We argue that part of this transformation in human behaviour also included the changes in the mental mapping of landscape and the cultural significance of remembered places. When viewed in this way, from a cave on the edge of the their world, it is the persistence of these places in the minds of Neanderthals that sits at the heart of their ability to know, to map and to modify their changing world.