Jersey's place in Neanderthal history

21 October 2013

La Cotte de St Brelade, Jersey

Matt Pope's collaborative research project on Jersey has rediscovered an important record of Neanderthal archaeology thought lost to science.

In 2011 the collaborative archaeological research team, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), undertook fieldwork to stabilise and investigate a portion of the La Cotte de St Brelade cave, on the Channel Island of Jersey. The results of this work, published recently in the Journal of Quaternary Science, have caused surprise, revealing that the site has preserved a set of geological deposits which were thought lost through excavation 100 years ago.

As Matt indicated:

  • We were sure from the outset that the deposits held some archaeological potential, but these dates indicate that we have an exceptional sequence of deposits which span the last 120 thousand years still preserved at the site. Crucially for us, this covers the period in which Neanderthal populations apparently became ‘extinct’ and during which they appear to have been replaced by our own species. In terms of volume of sediment, archaeological richness and depth of time, there is nothing else like it known in the British Isles.”

The dating, using a technique called Optically Stimulated Luminesce, which measures the last time sand grains were exposed to sunlight, was carried out at the Luminescence Dating Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at Oxford. It shows in detail that part of the sequence dates between 100,000 and 47,000 years ago, indicating that the Neanderthal teeth which were discovered in 1910 were younger than this age and probably belonged to one of the last Neanderthals to live in the region.

The NERC-funded work represents the first formal programme of scientific research to be focused on the site since the early 1980’s. The site has since then been managed and preserved by the Société Jerisaise, the Jersey-based learned society involved in early investigation of the site and which continues to manage and protect the site. The rediscovery of these lost levels now means there is a firm scientific basis on which to bring the large collections of Neanderthal stone tools, animal bones and environmental evidence curated by Jersey Heritage under renewed study.

The project team, which also includes specialists from the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins at Southampton, the British Museum and the University of Manchester, have been working to explore the Ice Age archaeological potential of Jersey for the past four years. In 2013 their wider excavations were supported by the Jersey Tourism Development Fund. This autumn, work has also started on a major reassessment of Neanderthal behaviour from another, older part of the site funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council led by Southampton University

According to Matt:

  • "Jersey has a valuable record of archaeology from the Ice Age and an exceptional record of long term climate change and human behaviour from La Cotte. Recognition of this potential has allowed us to bring to bear significant funding streams to develop an exciting multi-stranded research project. The NERC-funded research has specifically enabled us to identify a significant set of Ice Age deposits. They provide a unique opportunity to bring the lives of the last Neanderthal groups of North West Europe into clearer focus.  We may be able to use this evidence to more clearly understand when Neanderthal populations disappeared from the region and whether they ever shared the landscape with the species which ultimately replaced them, us.

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