Life with the Neanderthals

From Robinson Crusoe’s discovery of Friday’s footprint on his desert island to Mary Leakey’s unearthing of a 3.6 Ma old trackway left by two adults and a juvenile of the hominin species Australopithecus afarensis at Laetoli in Tanzania, such tangible signs of another related creature have fostered an eerie thrill in whoever witnesses them. Other ancient examples have turned up, such as the signs of mud trampled by 800 ka humans (H. antecessor?) at Happisburgh, Norfolk, UK (see Traces of the most ancient Britons, February 2014). From a purely scientific standpoint, footprints provide key evidence of foot anatomy, gait, travel speed, height, weight, and the number of individuals who contributed to a trackway. At Le Rozel on the Cherbourg Peninsula in Normandy, France – about 30 km west of the D-Day landing site at Utah beach – Yves Roupin, an amateur archaeologist, discovered a footprint on the foreshore in the 1960s close to the base of a thick sequence of late-Pleistocene dune sediments exposed below a rocky cliff. Fifty years later, rapid onset of wind and tidal erosion threatened to destroy the site, so excavations and scientific analysis began. This involved excavation of thick overburden on an annual basis to expose as much of five footprint-bearing horizons as possible (about 90 m2).

Le Rozel
The Le Rozel excavation, with weighted plastic sheets to protect the site from erosion between visits (credit: Dominique Cliquet)

More and more prints emerged, each photographed and modelled in 3-D, with the best being preserved as casts using a flexible material, similar to that used by dentists (Duveau, J. eyt al. 2019. The composition of a Neandertal social group revealed by the hominin footprints at Le Rozel (Normandy, France). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 9 September 2019; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1901789116). At the end of the excavation hundreds of prints had been found and recorded. They had been preserved in wet sand, probably deposited in an interdune pond. Luminescence dating of sand grains revealed that the footprints were produced around 80 ka ago, 35 ka before Europe was occupied by anatomically modern humans. Scattered around the site are numerous fossils of butchered prey animals, together with stone tools typical of Neanderthal technology.

Such a large number of footprints presented a unique opportunity to analyse the social structure of the Neanderthal group that produced them, for they came in many different sizes. During the very short period in which they were produced and buried by wind-blown sand, an estimated 10 to 13 individuals had crossed and re-crossed the site – there may have been more individuals who didn’t happen to cross the wet patch But the evidence suggests that children and adolescents, one of whom may have been as young as 2 years, predominated. Two or three with the biggest feet were probably adults as tall as 1.9 metres – about 20 cm taller that the average for modern human males. That is surprising for Neanderthals who are widely believed to have been more stocky. The fact that footprints occur in 5 horizons suggests that the band, or perhaps family, found the site to be good for occupation. Wider hypotheses are a little shaky. Did Neanderthals have large families? Does the predominance of children and adolescents indicate that they died young? But perhaps children stayed close to habitations with just a few ‘minders’, while other adults went off hunting and foraging. Were the kids playing?