February 28, 2011

Tautavel Valley, Languedoc Region of Southern France

Just to the west of the famous Provence Region of France, is an equally beautiful, but far less visited area known as Languedoc. While beautiful maquis-covered hills, extensive vineyards, and wonderful food make this a travelers paradise already, Languedoc also contains one feature most definitely worth visiting if you are interested in the ancient history of humankind.

In the village of Tautavel is a museum containing the remains of several 450,000 year old individuals, collectively dubbed "Tautavel Man". 450,000 years old you say? That's a lot older than the painted caves, paleolithic sites, and the neanderthal bones you usually hear about.

Homo erectus tautavelensis skull

In fact, you may be thinking, I didn't even know there were humans in Europe nearly half a million years ago. Well, that's because first of all, Tautavel Man was not a modern human (Homo sapiens), but a precursor species (Homo erectus) to both modern humans and Neanderthals. Secondly, he represented what was just one of the early waves of hominid colonization of Europe. These people, if you can call them that, were so ancient that they did not even have fire yet! Although Homo erectus in Africa had been using fire long before that.

The limestone ridges of this region contain numerous caves.
Arago cave is located at that structure near-top right.

In fact, as the climate fluctuated in Europe over the past 1 million years between Ice Age advances and interglacial warming periods, hominids colonized and became extinct several times on the continent.

At the excavation in Arago Cave

It really was not until the Neanderthals, physiologically adapted to arctic conditions, arrived in Europe around 160,000 years ago that hominids were on the continent to stay. Modern humans did not start colonizing Europe until around 40,000 years ago.

Some of the stone tools found at Arago Cave

The bones of Tautavel Man were discovered in Arago Cave just outside of the small village of Tautavel in 1971. These limestone ridges contain numerous caves that were shelters for people over hundreds of thousands of years of frigid Ice Age winters. Since then, several other individuals, including a woman in her 50's and several men in their 20's have been discovered at the site. Evidence from the bones and teeth indicate that the average individual during that time period had a life expectancy of 32-years old. That makes me elderly by those standards.

A reconstruction of the skeleton of the Tautavel Man

At the museum in Tautavel, you can see the timelines of human occupation in the region, plus bones and tools of the primitive hominids. There are numerous displays showing how the climate of the continent shifted back and forth between warm and cold over the 1 million years of the Pleistocene, that represents the period of the most recent Ice Ages.

There are several diaramas showing what the ecosystems looked like during these different time periods and how the people of the era dealt with their environment.

550,000 years ago, the climate of the Tautavel Valley was cold and dry. It contained expanses of grassy prairies and steppe, where herds caribou and horses mingled with argali (a type of bighorn sheep) and tahr (a type of goat) grazed on rocky outcrops.

Approximately 500,000 years ago the climate warmed, and as glaciers receded, the cold high pressure air eased back to the north. This allowed moisture to increase as storms off the Atlantic were again free to move across the region. This resulted in a temperate forested landscape of chestnut, beech, and oak, not dissimilar to those found in Central Europe today. In this era, bison and horses grazed with deer and elk in a landscape conducive to large predators like the cave lion.

During the time of Tautavel Man (about 450,000 years ago), the landscape was growing colder and drier again. The forests thinned and growing expanses of grassland allowed large herds to return to the valley. Rhinocerous were a primary food source for these people, as were caribou, horses, and bison.

By 400,000 years ago, the landscape was fully engulfed in another glacial period, resulting in a steppe tundra-like environment. Musk Ox and other arctic species predominated. It was not long before these early hominids went extinct in the region and it would be devoid of humans until the arrival of other colonizers during another interglacial period.

So, if you ever want to take a trip to beautiful Southern France, do not feel constrained to stay in popular and crowded Provence. There is so much to see and do elsewhere in the region, from 11,000 year old painted caves to half a million year old early hominid sites.. Learn something about the ancient history of humans in Europe, while sipping your fine red wine and cheese amongst beautiful vineyards and snow-capped peaks on the blue waters of the Mediterranean.

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