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The Caveman’s Home Was Not a Cave

Our picture of man’s early home has been skewed by modern preconceptions.

It was the 18th-century scientist Carolus Linnaeus that laid the foundations for modern biological taxonomy. It was also Linnaeus who argued for the existence of Homo troglodytes, a primitive people said to inhabit the caves of an Indonesian archipelago. Although troglodyte1 has since been proven to be an invalid taxon, archaeological doctrine continued to describe our ancestors as cavemen. The idea fits with a particular narrative of human evolution, one that describes a steady march from the primitive to the complex: Humans descended from the trees, stumbled about the land, made homes in caves, and finally found glory in high-rises. In this narrative, progress includes living inside confined physical spaces. This thinking was especially prevalent in Western Europe, where caves yielded so much in the way of art and artifacts that archaeologists became convinced that a cave was also a home, in the modern sense of the word.

By the 1980s, archaeologists understood that this picture was incomplete: The cave was far from being the primary residence. But archaeologists continued focusing on excavating caves, both because it was habitual and the techniques involved were well understood.

Then along came the American anthropological archaeologist, Margaret Conkey. Today a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, she had asked a simple question: What did cave people do all day? What if she looked at the archaeological record from the perspective of a mobile culture, like the Inuit? She decided to look outside of caves.

For the past 20 years, Conkey and her team have been conducting open-air field research in the Ariège region, in the Central Pyrénées foothills of France. Her project, titled “Between the Caves,” concentrated on the Paleolithic era, also known as the Stone Age, before humans became sedentary. Challenging the status quo, she found that the Paleolithic people were much more than cavemen.

The California-based Conkey spoke to Nautilus from Seattle, where she was, coincidently, helping her daughter re-organize her home.


Why did you launch the “Between the Caves” project? Were cave sites too crowded with other archaeologists?
Well, one might say that! In the early 1970s I was thinking about a new project. At the time, American archaeologists were developing an open-air survey methodology, where we’re out on the landscape looking for archaeological artifacts. The method wasn’t yet used in France or Spain, or other European countries. So I proposed to my French colleagues a project looking for materials out on the landscape. For Paleolithic research, those materials would be stone tools. They said, “You won’t find anything.” I said, “Why won’t I find anything?” They said, “Nobody’s really found anything or reported anything.” I said, “Has anybody looked systematically?” They said, “Well, no.” They thought I was nuts.

I don’t blame anyone for focusing on caves. Caves are constrained spatially, preservation is excellent because they’re usually limestone and very alkaline, which helps preserve bone and other materials that don’t often preserve in the open air. But caves are an unrepresentative sample of where people were and what they did. People were clearly inside caves—painting, drawing, and doing other kinds of artistic and cultural activities. But they weren’t hunting in a cave, they weren’t collecting raw materials in a cave, they weren’t collecting firewood or other things. So where were they the rest of the time, and what were they doing?

What tells an archaeologist that Paleolithic people spent less time in caves than we imagined in the past?
One big clue is seasonal occupation evidence, something archaeologists infer based on things like animal bones. For example, by looking at found animal teeth, we can tell you at what season of the year the animals were killed. Also, certain animals are only available at certain times—fish that spawn at certain seasons of the year, for example. Almost all caves are described by archaeologists as seasonal, namely as autumn or winter occupations. It’s clear that people were in caves for maybe a couple of months a year at the most.

How did you look for evidence on the landscape and what did you find?
We looked at plowed fields, because when plows churn up dirt, they expose artifacts. We surveyed 360 plowed fields—cornfields, vineyards, sunflower, soybean, sorghum, and other crops in the Central Pyrenees, Ariège region in France. We walked between rows of crops in a systematic way, looking for flint artifacts. Ideally a crop is low enough that you can walk down one row and look to the left and to the right at the same time. Right away we started finding a lot of artifacts.

Caves are an unrepresentative sample of where people were and what they did.

Then we discovered what we think is an open-air habitation site in Peyre Blanque, also in the Ariège region, on a ridge that’s never been plowed. We found artifacts eroding out of a muddy horseback-riding trail in the woods. The horses had stirred up the mud, and exposed some stone tools; now the site has yielded hundreds of them. We started excavating and found stone slabs, which we believe is a habitation structure in the open-air, probably from the Upper Paleolithic, about 17,000 years ago. We also found yellow, black, and red pigments, meaning ochre—powdered hydrated iron oxide—that early humans used for art and body art.

We also found pieces of flint that came from sometimes 200 or more kilometers away. In some fields there were no flint sources anywhere nearby, so finding pieces of flint that are flakes, or otherwise worked, suggested that people carried flint from somewhere, used it for tools, and left it. That means that people were on the move; they were making long treks, or passing these materials to each other as they met somewhere on the landscape. The number of artifacts we found suggests a long-time use of the landscape—people were coming to this area probably 80,000 years ago and even into the Neolithic.

We found many Paleolithic sites, but we can’t determine exactly what period because we just don’t have any datable, organic materials. We’re using a typological classification system that the French perfected—we look at how the people made their tools. Neanderthals, for example, have a very distinctive technique of removing a flake from a core, called the Levallois technique.2  We found more Neanderthal tools than anybody ever imagined were in this area!

How would you define home?
Home is a place or places on the landscape that you are somehow connected to. It’s also a conceptual and symbolic notion as to where people are from, where they relate to, and where certain important aspects of their lives take place. Home is a place where you reconnect with people or memories. We found that some of our sites were revisited for thousands of years, again and again. On the same sites, we found artifacts that are characteristic of Neanderthal populations of the Middle Paleolithic era, and artifacts that are characteristic of modern humans from the later, Upper Paleolithic era. We call these sites “Places of Many Generations.”

Interestingly, not all these locations are next to a source of flint, so people intentionally chose to use, and re-use, a location with clear evidence of previous generations, previous peoples, and maybe even previous kinds of peoples. People would recognize the stone tools of other groups, similarly to how we’d recognize this funny thing from the 1800s. We see some tools that were possibly made earlier and then reworked much later with different techniques. I think people of the landscape had social memories of the uses of the landscape, and they understood that people before them used those places too. These Places of Many Generations actually could be places of memory and memory-making. So people of the landscape created memories and, in doing so, created a home.

Would an archaeologist from a mobile culture have a different view of what home is compared to an archaeologist from a sedentary culture? 
I think so. Archaeologists are influenced by their culture, not surprisingly. We can’t be totally neutral—we’d be like a blob—but it’s important to recognize what biases we bring to our work. My colleagues and I are suggesting that we have certain biases about what constitutes a “home” and that mobile people didn’t think of home as a stationary physical structure. A “homeless” archaeologist would have a different perspective. Only instead of using the term “homeless,” which in our culture has a negative connotation, I use the term “spatially ambitious.” Clearly, based on what we found, our ancestors were way more spatially ambitious than the cavemen we had thought them to be. Accepting that fact can help us recognize our modern spatially ambitious behavior—immigration, emigration, globalization—and understand what the concept of home means for modern humans.


Jude Isabella is a science writer based in Victoria, British Columbia. Her new book, Salmon, A Scientific Memoir, will be released next year.

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