Les Néandertaliens de La Chaise by SILVANA CONDEMI (preface by Bernard Vandermeersch)
Comité des Travaux Historiques et Scientifiques. 2001. 178pp, 57 figures, 41 tables, 59 plates. ISBN 2-7355-0470-0. (€38)

The Neanderthals occupy a unique place in the pantheon of hominin species. Their apparent proximity to us in terms of appearance and ability have held the world transfixed since the discovery of the first fossils in the middle of the Nineteenth century. This fascination with all things Neanderthal is reflected in the wealth of literature that has been generated over the last 150 years. One could reasonably say without fear of contradiction that the number of assorted pamphlets, papers and books dealing with the subject far exceeds the total of Neanderthal individuals that ever lived! It is therefore, always a distinct pleasure to encounter a work on the Neanderthals that is dually able to contribute to the subject and to raise the standard. Silvana Condemi’s monograph on the La Chaise Neanderthals does just that. The principle aim of the work is to present descriptions and interpretations of the La Chaise fossil material; much of which has remained unpublished since excavation. The importance of this material cannot be understated as it provides crucial information on the evolution of the cranial and facial traits of European hominins that predate the ‘classic’ Neanderthal period.

The site of La Chaise is located on the shores of the River Tardoire close to the town of La Chasie in Charente, France (45° 66’ N, 0° 48’ E). The site consists of three caves: Bourgeois-Delauny, Suard and Duport. First discovered in the 1850s and explored on and off until the first systematic excavations took place in the 1930s. The caves were then intermittingly excavated up until the late 1970s. Of particular importance is the Abri Bourgeois-Delauny which contained the remains of 23 adult and infant fossils, with which this work is principally concerned, dated to 151000±15000 BP. Allowing for the maximum margin of error this places the fossils OIS 5e. This date puts the La Chaise material in a temporal context of extreme importance in the Prehistory of Europe as its deposits cover a period, just before the full Mousterian expansion of the last glaciation. The fossil material is consists principally of a partial cranium, a mandible, assorted fragments and teeth. Material from the Abri Suard, consisting of 52 fragmentary adults and infants, are uncertainly dated to the same time period and consist of a large portion of a cranial vault, an occipital bone, an infant mandible and other fragments and associated teeth. Viewed as a whole assemblage the material is interpreted as representing early Homo neanderthalensis but preceding the later classic Neanderthal phase of European occupation.

This work takes the form of a detailed morphological description of the remains as well as an in depth metrical analysis and attempts to place the material in a meaningful evolutionary context. After the introduction the work is split into five main sections. Section A: Cranial; which deals with the cranial material and is subdivided into 4 sections that detail the calvaria of BD17A, 17B and ET BD4. The Temporal bone of BD7, the sphenoid bone of BD7 and the occipital of BD6. Section B: Cranial-Facial; analyses the zygomatic of BD23. Section C: Mandibular; analyses the mandible of BD 1 and also lists the dental material found from the various fossil individuals. Section D: Post-Crania: describes the femur from BD5 and a fragmentary rib from BD3. Section E: Conclusions; reviews the fossil assemblage as a whole and explores its context within the European fossil record. Perhaps the greatest strength of Condemi’s work lies in the well thought out and detailed comparison between fossil material from other sites. This includes not only earlier fossil material such as Arago, Mauer, Steinheim & Sima dello Huesos but contemporary material from Saccopastore, Krapina, Gibraltar and Ehringsdorf as well as later material from the classic Neanderthal phase such as La Ferrassie, La Qiuna, Spy, La Chapelle-aux-Saints and of course Feldhoffer. This allows the La Chaise fossils to be placed within a meaningful evolutionary context. This in turn provides a greater clarity with which to analyse the morphological traits of the fossil material. Condemi points towards the Bourgeois-Delaunay material as converging morphologically with the fossils characteristic of the ‘classical’ Neanderthal period although she does identify some differences that echo the adaptations seen in earlier material. But also stresses that point that without the presence of a clear stratigraphic chronology it would have been problematic placing the La Chaise material in a clear morphological context.

The organisation and structure of the work is exceptionally straightforward and is worth commenting on. It deals with the fossil remains in clear and concise sections each containing extremely detailed morphological and metric descriptions of all of the remains from the Bourgeois-Delaunay cave; as well as very useful and in-depth comparisons with other fossil material. The illustrations and photos are of a very high quality throughout and the tables of comparative data make this an extremely important resource bringing together for the first time in one place data that was previously scattered across a wide range of sources. On the negative side the lack of any form of index is irksome and can make locating specific material time consuming but that is a minor point and should not be allowed to detract from the achievement of this piece of work.

This is a work of exceptional detail and impressive clarity. It deserves a comfortable berth on the shelves of any researcher with even the slightest interest in the Neanderthals. In conclusion I can do little better than to quote from Bernard Vandermeersch who in the preface to this work wrote:

“…paléontologists ainsi que les préhistoriens trouveront dans l'ouvrage de S. Condemi un document indispensable à la compréhension des Néandertaliens d'Europe.”

Simon Underdown
Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies
University of Cambridge

Review Submitted: March 2004

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

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