Back to Book Reviews

Sainte-Anne I Sinzelles, Polignac, Haute-Loire. Le Paléolithique Moyen de l’Unité J1, by Jean-Paul Raynal
Les dossiers de l’Archéo-Logis no. 3 Laussonne: CDERAD, 2007. 265 pp, 64 photographs, 12 maps. ISBN 2-9517138-4-3 (€40)

Methodological progress makes Palaeolithic research design increasingly complex, requiring major cross-disciplinary specialists participations. Fieldwork remains intensive in Western Europe, whose latent documentary potential is not depleted despite nearly two investigation centuries. Significant new Lower and Middle Palaeolithic sites include Atapuerca, Orce, in Spain, La Noira, Lunery, Pond-de-Lavaud, Champ Grand, in France, Pakefield, Boxgrove, Lynford, in Britain, Eiffel Basin occurrences and Inden-Altdorf, in the German Rhineland.

The Massif Central, known for Villafranchian mammalian localities like Sainzelles, Le Coupet, Ceyssaguet, Chilhac, Perrier, Vialette, also contains prehistoric evidence of different ages and an important Palaeolithic record which, besides Magdalenian sites, comprises the Soleihac, Pié du Roy Lower Palaeolithic, and Middle Palaeolithic sites like Sainte-Anne I, Baume-Vallée, Blassac, Rond-du-Barry, Rond de Saint-Arcons, Rochelimagne, Le Madriat (Raynal et al. 2007).

The Massif Central geographic characteristics contrast with the surrounding limestone slope regions west, east and south. It is a mid-altitude mountainous region dominated by past volcanic basalt features broken into a varied landscape of ranges, vast plateaus, river valleys, inland basins. The climate combines Mediterranean, Atlantic and northerly influences. Its central situation and higher altitude define continental seasons, with cold winters, snow and frost. Despite an inland location, the Massif Central compares with Iceland on account of its volcanic landscape, boreal-like winters, and some epiarctic relict flora.

The Sainte-Anne I cave interim report, edited by Jean-Paul Raynal, Bordeaux University I, a volcanism, archaeopetrography and cave sediments micromorphology specialist and 12 contributors, presents rich findings from innovative methods and investigations spanning some 30 years, focused on the J1 late Mid-Pleistocene (Oxygen Isotopic Stage 6) horizon. It deserves serious reading as example of recent research methods, as well as important conclusions about Neanderthal land use and behavioural repertoires in the southern Massif Central. The monograph is informative, balanced, lavishly illustrated by high quality black and white, and colour photos (some at high magnification) of sediments and petrographic analyses of lithic artefacts, maps, plans, figures, line drawings and tables.

The volume contains fifteen chapters: research history, the site setting and depositional contents, palynology, electron spin resonance dating, six chapters on lithic artefact materials, two on faunal analysis, one on spatial analysis of the archaeological materials, and a conclusion. The analyses detect and unravel the intricate mix and alterations of environmental and archaeological materials in their regional and Pleistocene fluctuations contexts.

Sainte-Anne I, a fissure cave at a cliff base of the Sainte-Anne volcanic tuff, 737 m ASL, opens south on the left bank of the Borne river, an affluent of the Loire, in the Le Puy-en-Velay basin (Chapter 2, figs 2, 3, 4, 6). The surtseyan volcanic palagonitic tuffs of the basin were formed underwater by volcanic eruptions through a shallow lake surface. These landscape features were incised subsequently by stream and frost actions.

The cave fissures (including Sainte-Anne II and Rond-du-Barry) run deeply into the volcanic mass. The Sainte-Anne I accessible space covers some 50 m2, but the inside boundary and depositional depth remain unknown. Investigations began earnestly in 1975 under R. Séguy and afterward under J.-P. Raynal. The J1 horizon excavation used the m2 grid plan and Cartesian coordinate recording system. This upper horizon was partly disturbed by structures. The stratification comprises a succession of cryoclastic sedimentary horizons created by exfoliation of the porous tuff matrix, fragmented by repeated postdepositional alternations of moisture and intensive frost, shown by micromorphology (Chapter 3: figs 1–3, 5, 14). The J1, J2, J3 sedimentary units are separated by rock fall episodes E1, E2 (Figs 9, 10).

ESR dating and the Velay’ Costaros and Northern Greece pollen profiles, and Mediterranean palaeotemperature suggest an Isotopic Stages 6 and 7 span (Chapter 15, fig. 1). Pollen analyses, however, point to sustained stadial continental steppe conditions with slightly milder oscillations. Units J3, E2 arboreal pollens 12–14 % are dominated by pine, some fir and spruce, scarce leafy trees. Unit J2 contains exclusively evergreens and steppe grassland, pointing to an increasingly stadial formation. Units E1, J1 show milder stadial settings (arboreal pollens 12–13%), some leafy trees and reduced steppe grassland. Mammalian remains indicate a suite dominated by a large horse (E caballus cf. piveteaui) and reindeer for units J1 and J2. J2 also contains woolly mammoth and rhinoceros. Unit E1 with ibex and reindeer, points to cold stadial. The entire Sainte-Anne 1 bioclimatic succession fits plausibly within the Costaros palaeobotanical horizon, or early OIS 6 Saalian.

The lithic artefact sections cover petroarchaeological analyses, raw material sourcing, lithic reduction, trimming, use and discarding sequences (Chapter 9, table 1, 2; Chapter 10, table 1, 2) and typology. Toolmaking testifies to skill mastery, familiarity with procurement sources, with preference for the most tractable types. The techniques ranges and typological categories are diagnostic of Middle Palaeolithic flake industries, with prepared-core methods (levallois and disc-core variants) shown by cores, flake performs and biproducts, tool types (racloirs, points, denticulates, notches), varying according to different material properties.

The main lithic resources include basalt, quartz and diverse flint types. Basalt remained most common, readily obtained locally within a 3 km radius in dispersed alluvium deposits of different facies types and petrographic structures (Chapter 6, fig. 8 and colour photos) in volcanic tuff landscape. Flaking, mostly discoid, shows careful, parsimonious exploitations of elongated flat nodules. Raw flakes remain dominant. Large implements include more or less standardized handaxes (usually scarce in caves or rockshelter), cleavers and retouched flakes (Chapter 9, figs 23–26, 34). They were introduced as preforms to be finished or occasionally rejuvenated. Of the three alluvium pebbles quartz types, the coarse-grained dominates despite irregular breakage pattern, because the fine-grained quartz natural cleavage plans hamper reduction control. The hyaline fine-grained transluscent type was rarely used. Unifacial and bifacial flaking produced rectangular cortical flakes (Chapter 10, figs 10, 12), with few retouched pieces. Large implements involved two discoid cores modified into choppers.

Although basalt constitutes the bulk of the lithic industry, the flint component, made of 602 pieces, was analysed intensively. The petroarchaeology section is an outstanding example of innovative methods. The key objective was to determine and inventory the mineral resources space traveled and exploited by Middle Palaeolithic populations in the southern Massif Centralm northern Ardèche and Causses areas (Fernandes et al. 2008). A handle on this line of investigation contributed independently to archaeological resolution, drawing on petrographic, mineralogical and morphoscopic expertise and eventually, physico-chemical analysis. This exhaustive study of modification series, traced siliceous stones diagenesis in marine, lacustrine, paludal environments, their successive alterations in depositional and postdepositional contexts (Chapter 11, tables 1–6), procurement, exploitation, utilization and discard phases by toolmakers. Tables 7–10 describe in depth these processes, the methodology, observations, analyses, identification attributes and nomenclature.

These enabled identifying, localize and map (figure 2) accurately 26 depositional sites, flint types and subtypes (Table 11). Their Mesozoic or Cenozoic origin, properties (texture, transparency, colour, sheen, cortex, patina, inclusions) are discussed thoroughly, with splendid high-magnification colour photos (figures 3–7), and source types (pebbles, nodules, plaquettes, seams, blocs). This yielded a corpus of flint procurement ranges covering respectively 15, 30 and 60 km radii (Figs 12, 14). The overwhelming majority (435 pieces) came from the local F3 types deposits (Fig. 13) and secondly, types F36, 27 km away. Exotic flints from at least 100 km would be obtained through circulation networks, instead of directly like local or nearer sources. Mapped mineral procurement spaces fitted within more inclusive subsistence home ranges. The Sainte-Anne I summer home base was selected for its subsistence location, rather than for flint procurement.

Lithic reduction used various flint types strongly dominated by local deposits sources. Flaking of mainly pebbles or plaquettes was carried out on the spot for local and some regional flints, whereas scarce exotic materials were processed and used elsewhere. Levallois and other techniques were applied expediently, often parsimoniously to extract maximum amounts of flakes, some retouched (recloirs, denticulates, notches) and discarded (Chapter 11: figs 29, 31).

Nearly 96% of the (Chapters 12, 13) heavily fragmented and abraded mammal remains (Chapters 12, 13) are unidentifiable. Ungulates provide 93.3% of taxonomically determined pieces. The main group comprises 41.1% of a large caballine equid, 18.8% reindeer and ca 7.8% ibex. Scant woolly mammoth and rhinoceros pieces are found in the J1 and J2 units. Carnivores are scarce (ca 6%). Details are tabulated for provenance, numbers, dimensions and anatomical elements (Chapter 12: Annex), with photographs. The leading ungulate ecological groups (Chapter 12: fig. 17) belong primarily to open steppe horse, 59.1 % and open tundra, 26.3 % (reindeer, mammoth, woolly rhinoceros), then mountain, 10.5%, and woodland (red deer) 4.05%. The large horse (E. caballus cf. piveteaui), and small wolf diagnostic traits suggest a Saalian faunal community. Carcasses processing is indicated by cutmarks and pounding traces (Chapter 13: figs 4–7). Carnivore damage seems negligible. Entire or major portions of ungulate carcasses were brought inside the cave.

Chapter 14 on intra-site analysis is innovative and thorough. Spatial analysis, though applied to Palaeolithic sites for decades, has runs into resolution difficulties, particularly in enclosed sites: limited time control, intricate depositional mingling of archaeological and sedimentary materials, alterations during or after occupation surface formations, the problematic role of palimpsests processes in removing, truncating, reworking, mixing or conflating deposits (Bailey 2006; Vermeersch 2001). The purpose of spatial analysis is discerning anthropogenic activity patterns, besides taphonomic distortions.

The Geographic Interpretation System (GIS) applied to the J1 horizon retains the advantage of operational versatility and open-ended flexibility. It allows adding and coordinating observations to search surface and cross-sectional associations, and test hypotheses. The ArcView and MapInfo programmes helped handling and analyzing a comprehensive range of archival data. This information basis (Figs 1–10) and preliminary results are illustrated in detail (Figs 13–51), and interpreted cautiously and tentatively.

The composite picture emerging from the partly truncated J1 horizon cannot be dismissed entirely as ‘noise’, however. Surface stream abrasion traces are localized on the surface. Palimpsests of repeated occupation episodes stand out in cross-sections (Fig. 12). Preserved structures include toolmaking areas. A main one with cores, chipping products and biproducts concentrated in front of the cave porch, would also provide a vantage point for observing prey species movements. The other, lesser area was at the cave rear. Certain excavation squares contain denticulates and notches clusters associated with horse skulls and limb extremities, whereas racloirs seem scattered randomly. Carcasses and major carcass portions were processed inside the cave, protecting as well against carnivore interference.

The Sainte-Anne I monograph incorporates substantial palaeoenvironmental and archaeological information, amounting to more than the sum of separate specialist contributions. The concluding chapter synthesizes this evidence with chapter summaries observations bearing on hominid behaviour. Middle Palaeolithic land use repertoires, documented by this and other Massif Central situations, contribute a framework for comparing with occurrences in Western Europe and beyond. They establish that early Neandertals possessed efficacious strategies notwithstanding challenging stadial circumstances, capitalizing on intimate knowledge about habitat resources accumulated through generations. The Velay basin compartmentalized landscape features conditioned mesoclimates (localized climatic responses to regional patterns), pointing to suitable settlement area, in relation to prevailing seasonal wind (northerly during summers), numbers of frost-free days per year, hourly cave temperature and moisture levels microclimatic measurements (Chapter 2: figs 12, 13).

The Massif Central, like the Aquitaine, benefited from moderating maritime influences, longer mid-latitude solar radiation levels favouring plant growth productivity (Mellars 1985, 275), though under continental conditions amplified by the severe OIS 6 stadial cold steppe and higher (then 850 m ASL) altitude, especially during the J2, E1 horizons. Sainte-Anne I remains the earliest known instance (older than in the Alps—Tillet 2001) of mid-range mountain vertical transhumance. It adds to growing Mid-Pleistocene evidence of stadial, periglacial and higher latitude occupation (Rolland, in press).

The flint ‘mineral procurement’ space within a subsistence home range (Chapter 15: fig. 3) characterises independently Middle Palaeolithic techno-economic repertoires. The behavioural ecology of ungulate species indicates a habitat mosaic: horses in steppe grassland; reindeer using the Allier River as long distance migratory corridor; ibex in craggy hills; red deer in woodland copses. Research planned for the undisturbed underlying J2 to J3 horizons should increment and broaden the stimulating evidence and conclusions presented in the J1 unit.

Nicolas Rolland
University of Victoria, Canada


Bailey, G. 2006. Time perspectives, palimpsests and the archaeology of time. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 26,198–223

Fernandes, P., Raynal J.P. & Moncel, M.H. 2008. Middle Palaeolithic raw material gathering territories and human mobility in the southern Massif Central, France: first results from a petro-archaeological study on flint. Journal of Archaeological Science 35, 2357–2370

Mellars, P.A. 1985. The Ecological Basis of Social Complexity in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern France. In T. Douglas Price and J.A. Brown (eds.), Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers. The Emergence of Social Complexity, 271–297. London: Academic Press

Raynal, J.-P., P. Fernandes, M. Le Corre-le Beux & C. Santagata 2007. Le Paléolithique moyen de Haute-Loire: origins, diversité, affinities. In R. Desbrosses & A. Thévenin (eds.) Arts et cultures de la préhistoire. Hommages à Henri Delporte, 117–133. Paris: Editions du Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques

Rolland, N. in press. The Early Human Occupation of High Latitudes, Boreal, Continental and Periglacial Habitats: Middle Palaeolithic Milestones in Northern Eurasia. In J.M. Burdukiewicz (ed.), Middle Palaeolithic Human Activity and Palaeoecology: New Discoveries and Ideas. Wrocľaw: University Press.

Tillet, T. 2001. Les Alpes et le Jura. Quaternaire et Prehistoire ancienne. Paris: Editions scientifique GB

Vermeersch, P.M. 2001. Middle Paleolithic settlement patterns in West European open-air sites: possibilities and problems. In N.J. Conard (ed.), Settlement Dynamics of the Middle Paleolithic and Middle Stone Age, 395–417. Tübingen: Kerns Verlag.

Review submitted: November 2008

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page