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Hunter-gatherers facing environmental changes: the Magdalenian of the Atlantic coast during the Late Glacial (18,000-14,000 cal. BP) – MAGDATIS

Paleolithic hunter-gatherers facing environmental changes

The role played by environmental changes in the evolution of territories, techniques and cultures among human groups from the Magdalenian in the western Aquitaine basin at the end of the last glaciation (19000-14000 years before present)

The relationship between environment and society among Upper Paleolithic nomadic hunter-gatherers

Being nomadic and living only from hunting and gathering, Paleolithic people are often perceived - by scholars and by the general public alike - as highly depending on the variations of their natural environment. And indeed, one of the main issues in Paleolithic archeology is to understand the relationship that the evolution of techniques, cultures, and the territories exploited by human groups, has with changes in the climate, flora, and fauna. But this issue is difficult to address because the archeological and paleoenvironmental data have differing degrees of precision and are not equally abundant for all periods and regions. The aim of this project was to lift this difficulty through the study of a key case: the Middle and Upper Magdalenian, ca. 19000-14000 calBP (= years before present). It is one of the oldest periods where the resolution of both the environmental and archeological data is high enough to insert them into a common, precise chronological framework. The evolution of the human groups can thus be studied parallel to a coeval, abrupt and global climatic change: the end of the last glaciation.

The Western Aquitaine basin was selected as study area. During the Paleolithic, this region shows sharp ecological contrasts (steppe, sandy desert, oceanic seashore, Pyrenean foothills) that make it an ideal context to study the behavior of human groups in different environments. A precise paleoenvironmental survey was made through the study of natural records (sediments, pollen, fauna, etc.): chronology of the deglaciation process in the Western Pyrenees, evolution of the sandy dune field in the Landes, changes in the continental flora and fauna. Along with new archeological field operations (test pits and excavations), a series of key sites were selected, most of which excavated between the 1960s and the 2000s. These sites were the subject of a collective multidisciplinary reassessment: stratigraphic analysis, radiocarbon dating, study of the stone and bone equipments (lithic and osseous technotypology), study of faunal remains (zooarcheology, cementochronology), and study of human remains (anthropology of mortuary practices).

The results of this project greatly changed our perception of the Western Aquitaine basin in the Paleolithic, of its environmental constraints and human population. The Gironde, then mostly a steppe-like region, was apparently deserted for two millennia, probably because of conditions too cold and dry at that time. A periglacial desert lay in the Landes during the whole period considered, explaining the weakness of human presence in a region that was probably very constraining. Conversely, the seashore was more often frequented and more intensively exploited than previously thought, attesting the existence of a true seashore economy. In the Pyrenean lower valleys, the deglaciation was completed early and opened new landscapes that were rapidly settled by human groups. It is thus the environmental changes that draw the map of attractive and repulsive spaces. The lithic and osseous industry, however, show the existence of distribution networks not conditioned by natural obstacles: their extent is instead linked to social dynamics. The cumulative map of these networks does not reveal the existence of distinct geographic units that would correspond to different populations, but rather shows that many networks overlap each other, indicating a generalized movement of goods. At the end of the period, the extension of these networks contract, probably mostly because of technical dynamics. The end of the period also sees the appearance of new weapons and the earliest reliable evidence of the domestication of canines, probably used as hunting helpers. These innovations might be an adaptation to an environment that is now more favorable to small game - the hunting of which becomes then more frequent. Important changes at that period also include the reorganization of the faunal record, especially the disappearance of reindeer after -14000: the dividing of reindeer populations begins ca. -14800, earlier than previously thought.

This project yielded a clearer picture of the French Southwest: over 5 millennia, this area saw regional evolutions reflecting wider tendencies. But the Magdalenian is not limited to its middle and upper phases, nor to the regions around the Landes sands. The issue of population (dis)continuity in certain regions must be more deeply investigated by enlarging the geographic scale and furthering the efforts towards a better chronological resolution. The end of the Magdalenian and the beginning of the Azilian - that are, in France, coeval with the replacement of glacial biocenosis by temperate species - are also a key episode in the history of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers: their complex record remains to be investigated. The results of this project will thus be used as comparison material for other projects either in progress or forthcoming. In the short term, they will feed several projects in which members of Magdatis are taking part (PCR Dronne, dir. P. Paillet, 2011-2017; monograph of the Peyrazet site, Lot, dir. M. Langlais, 2008-2015) or which are in the process of organization (multidisciplinary research in the Ossau valley). In a broader perspective, the approach used in the Magdatis project (chronological reassessment, compared analysis of environmental and archeological data) is already beginning to be applied to emerging research in this field. Indeed, the reassessment of primary data, while often unrewarding and time-consuming, is a necessary step before any attempt can be made to model the evolution of hunter-gatherer societies. The continuation of this research will lead to a better understanding of the relationship of these ancient societies with their environment before domestication begins to deeply change the picture. By yielding an updated knowledge of the past while avoiding oversimplification, this research contributes to the general reflection on the evolution of human societies.

The results of the project have been presented in ca. 12 talks at national and international scientific conferences, 10 talks at seminars, scientific meetings and public conferences, and in ca. 20 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals. These publications are available on the Academia web page of the project ( An equivalent number of publications are currently being submitted, 10 of which will form a special issue of the journal Quaternary International. Several media products have also been elaborated to help diffusing the results to a wider audience. Three films of 2 minutes each have been produced to publicize the radiocarbon dating work done on the Paleolithic collections from the Musée d'archéologie nationale (Saint-Germain-en-Laye) and the musée d'Aquitaine (Bordeaux). Each film revolves around the direct dating of an antler object selected among the iconic artifact types of the Late Upper Paleolithic. These films can be viewed on the websites of the Traces and Pacea laboratories and freely used by universities and museums. The project of a book on the Late Glacial period in Western Europe has been accepted by the CTHS publisher; it will come out in the collection «Préhistoire en question« as a handbook-type publication intended for students. During the writing of the book, a series of posters will be made, based on the same scientific content. Several sets will be printed and will be at the disposal of laboratories and associations for use in exhibitions and scientific popularization events.

This project aims at studying the evolution processes of Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies jointly with the changes in their environment (climate, landscape, flora and fauna). Human-environment relationships in Prehistoric societies are thus a central issue of this research. We concentrate on the favorable case study of the “classical” Magdalenian (18,000-14,000 calibrated before present). It is one of the oldest periods where high-resolution environmental and archeological data allows to grasp together social evolutions, a reorganization of the biocenosis and a rapid, global climatic change (the end of the Last Glacial, or Late Glacial period) – all within a common, calibrated 14C chronological framework. Western Aquitaine is selected as the study area because it shows many ecological contrasts during the Magdalenian (steppe, sandy desert, Atlantic coast, Pyrenean foothills), which makes it an ideal laboratory to compare human behaviors in differing landscapes.

Because of the history of Paleolithic archeology in southwest France, research provinces are compartmentalized and most of our knowledge of the Magdalenian in this region is divided among specific case studies. Our objective is to bring this research to its further logical step by putting together this scattered data in a systemic perspective.

The research team set up for this project is made up of about twenty members, many of which already collaborated in the past. Paleoenvironment specialists (palynology, geomorphology) are combined with specialists in the study of human behavior, both techno-economic (zooarchaeology, lithic and osseous technology) and symbolic (funerary practices, especially).

The project comprises two main phases. The first one encompasses actions of data acquisition, database building and compiling of thematic summaries. This phase includes the setting up of a common radiometric framework, strengthened by an extensive 14C dating campaign via AMS. A precise regional paleoenvironmental summary will be drawn (i.e., chronology of the deglaciation of the western Pyrenees, evolution of the dune complex known as the Sable des Landes, climatic records, changes in the continental biocenosis). Several archeological collections from a selected series of key sites will be studied. This will result in the characterization of the Magdalenian technological and economical mode of exploiting mineral and animal resources (i.e., which raw material and finished products are sought and which know-how is involved). The social structure of the human groups - especially the status of the indivual - will be addressed through the study of funerary practices, but also through an investigation of the social organization of certain technical activities (degree of specialization, more or less collective nature…).

The second phase includes the collective exploitation of the results and their dissemination. A precise assessment of the nature and rate of the environmental changes is expected, as well as an evaluation of their impact on the territory and resources available to the human groups. Also expected is a detailed picture of the evolutions in the socio-economic choices of the hunter-gatherers. Linking those two fields together will give new insights into the determining factors of cultural changes.

Besides articles and conferences produced in the course of the project years, the closing of the project will be marked by the publication of a collective scientific book and the organization of an international meeting intended to point out further avenues of research.

Project coordination


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.



Help of the ANR 288,309 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: September 2011 - 36 Months

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