History Files


Please help the History Files

Contributed: 175

Target: 400

Totals slider

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.




Earliest Humans (Part 2: Neanderthals on the Kemmelberg)

by J L Putman & M Soenen


The oldest indications of human presence are in the Middle Palaeolithic (300,000 BC to 40,000 or 35,000 BC), perhaps in the late phase of that long period. They are assigned to itinerant Neanderthal people (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), in a very rarefied terrain, and are associated with the Mousterian culture (see 'Related History Files Links', below).

Moustier massif in the Dordogne, France
Photo © MNP, Les Eyzies, France

Moustier massif in the Dordogne, France, with two Mousterian culture shelters, photo from the early twentieth century.

Due to their nomadic way of life, Neanderthals adopted various forms of living, ranging from open-air camps for a few days of hunting - such as on the Kemmelberg - to permanent shelters in or at the entrance of caves.

Entrance of the Spy cave
Photo © Public Domain

Entrance of the Spy cave in Belgium, from excavations around 1886.

The skeletal remains of three Neanderthals (a man, woman, and toddler) were found in the 'Spy' cave in Namur, Belgium, one hundred and thirty five kilometres as the crow flies from the Kemmelberg.

Presumably these human remains were not found in, but in front of the cave entrance in the large mound of earth there, on the left-hand side of the photo.

These skeletal remains belong to the last Neanderthals in the region. They are about 40,000 years old.

Reconstructed Neanderthal
Photo © KBIN Brussels

Reconstructed portrait of a Neanderthal as he may have looked.

Anatomically modern humans also appeared in Europe during this period (and as early as 47,000 BC in South-Eastern Europe). For several millennia the two human species lived side-by-side, here and there across Europe.

The total population of Neanderthals is then estimated to have gone no further than a maximum of 100,000 individuals. A number of encounters with anatomically-modern humans resulted in sexual contact, since a few percent of our current genetic material is of Neanderthal origin.

Silex deposits and core pieces
Photo © CO7, DEPOTYZE, Ypres

Silex deposits and core pieces collected on the surface, mainly from the Middle Palaeolithic Kemmelberg.

Repeated visits to the Kemmelberg seem evident for Neanderthals. After all, it is an excellent observation site with views over a wide area for hunters of game both large and small. This seems even more likely in the open, treeless landscape of tundra and steppe in the first half of the most recent ice age (Weichselian: 115,000-10,000 BC).

The photo below shows a tundra landscape with low vegetation which consists of small shrubs, grasses, and mosses or lichens.

Today's tundra landscape in Siberia
Photo © Dr Andreas Hugentobler - CC BY 2.0 DE

Today's tundra landscape in Siberia.

Research shows that Neanderthals - 120,000 years ago - hunted their prey at close range. In-depth analysis of the oldest documented hunting wounds on the skeletons of fallow deer (now extinct in Europe) - such as can be found in Halle (Saale, Germany) - also shows that a spear hit the animal at low speed.

This suggests that the hunters approached the deer and thrust their spears into it at close range, with precision rather than throwing those spears forcefully. Such a hunting technique required planning, camouflage, and close cooperation between hunters.

Angle of spear impact, reconstruction
Photo © Eduard Pop, RGZM Germany

Reconstruction and experimental estimation of the angle of impact of the spear on a deer.

The Spy and Goyet sites in Belgium yielded striking results after examining collagen from bones, both those of Neanderthals and the fauna upon which they lived around 45-40,000 years ago, including mammoth, bison, bears, cave lions, horses, and woolly rhinoceroses.

During the Pleistocene, these animals mainly inhabited the cold steppe which formed much of Eurasia's territory, from central Spain and southern England to Mongolia and southern Siberia.

More than fifty percent of the diet of these Neanderthals consisted of meat which came from mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses, while twenty percent of their diet consisted of plants.

Neanderthal and predator prey, 40,000 years ago
Photo © Hervé Bocherens*

The various prey which Neanderthals and predators used to feed upon about 40,000 years ago.

Due to the find conditions and the long phase with the varying presence of different Mousterian culture groups, it is difficult to obtain a clear picture of that period on the Kemmelberg.

At least three large units can be distinguished: MTA (the Mousterian of the Acheulean tradition) in the south-west which was dominated by hand axes; the KMG (Keilmesser-Gruppen, otherwise known as the Micoquien culture) in the north-east, which was characterised by leaf-shaped bifacial backed tools; and the MBT (Mousterian with Bifacial Tools) in the centre, which was characterised by a greater variety of bifacial tools (see 'Related History Files Links', below, for more on these cultural units).

*Hervé Bocherens, fair use, from Phys.org (see 'External Links', below).

Geographical distribution of MTA, MBT, and KMG groups
Photo © Karen Ruebens

Geographical distribution of MTA, MBT, and KMG groups with location of the Kemmelberg's top.

Some individual artefacts may refer to a particular culture variant. For example, there is a heart-shaped hand axe which belongs to the MTA culture variant.

MTA hand axe, Kemmelberg
Photo © H Maertens

Symmetrical, heart-shaped and multi-function MTA hand axe on dorsal and ventral side, Kemmelberg.

Below is the image of a double-sided scraper, which was used as a cutting and scraping tool.

Double side scraper, Kemmelberg
Photo © H Maertens

Double-sided scraper, ventral and dorsal side, Kemmelberg.

The development of the new 'Levallois' technique, a new production process for stone tools which allowed the creation of a flake which was of a predictable shape and size, is tangible evidence of the evolution of abstract thinking in the Palaeolithic.

In the animation below, the Levallois flake will be retouched to a side scraper.

Hypothetical reconstructed Levallois technique for scraper
Animation © José-Manuel Benito Álvarez - CC BY-SA2.5

Hypothetical reconstructed Levallois technique for scraper.

In the next animation the flake is finally used as a point.

Hypothetical reconstructed Levallois technique for point
Animation © José-Manuel Benito Álvarez - CC BY-SA2.5

Hypothetical reconstructed Levallois technique for point.

Kemmelberg Levallois point
Photo © H Maertens

Kemmelberg Levallois point.

Drawing of a hafted Levallois point
Photo © Objectif Sciences International

Drawing of a hafted Levallois point.

A Levallois point was probably used for hunting.

Continued in Part 3.



Text copyright © Archeo Kemmelberg. An original feature for the History Files: Kemmelberg.