Life 15,000 years ago

Time and space Share page with AddThis

The Magdalenian was the last great culture of the Upper Palaeolithic, and it flourished between 15,000 and 9,000 years BP. It was characterised by an artistic and symbolic outpouring that was completely without precedent. Across the European continent, Homo sapiens enjoyed a cultural, technological and symbolic culture. Nevertheless, archaeology gives us an idea of how this culture varied over time and through space.

The Magdalenian culture Share page with AddThis

Some 17,000 years ago, an evolutionary shift occurred in the production of tools and weapons with respect to previous cultures such as the Solutrean and Badegoulian. 

A hunter's equipment basically consisted of sagaie points and flint spear tips. The production techniques (flint knapping) attest to striking changes vis-à-vis the Solutrean (thermal treatment, pressure flaking, etc.) In the symbolic realm there were new developments as well. The materials used changed, and there were new themes and shapes.
Throughout the six thousand years of the Magdalenian, however, there were shifts in production. The harpoon appeared about 12,000 years BP, near the end of the period.
In the Middle Magdalenian, the period of the four sculpted shelters, domestic equipment consisted of burins, scrapers and awls. Hunting equipment consisted mainly of single-bevel sagaie points associated with small flint spear tips. The symbolic realm was marked by a strong realistic trend in depictions of animals, with pride of place given to representations of bison, and the appearance of new elements (perforated discs, contours découpés, stomach beads, etc.).

Cultural territories Share page with AddThis

Magdalenian culture extended across Europe, and regional variants appeared in both the technical and symbolic realms. If we take only the Middle Magdalenian culture in western France, one cultural group – evidence of which has been found from the Jura to the Gironde – can be distinguished by their creation of "navettes" and long, double-bevel sagaie points. During the same period, in an area that stretched from northern Spain to the Parisian basin, other groups were manufacturing a different projectile point: the so-called Lussac-Angles sagaie.

Regional specificities are even more sharply visible in the symbolic realm. Portable art always played a key role in the characterisation and structuring of the Magdalenian. Thus, all art found east of the département of Vienne is characterised by a naturalistic figurative art on stone, a significant portion of which depicts human figures. It features two original elements: horse incisors engraved on their labial surface with a triangle or a square filled with very fine hash markings, and ivory stomach beads.

On the other hand, the navettes group is defined by very simplistic representations in which sexual scenes, angular human faces and decoration with small hollows are the dominant themes.

The Pyrenean group can be distinguished by their perforated discs, contours découpés and small stone statues of horses. Within this group, some productions were much more local: the "fawn with birds" theme sculpted on atlatls is found in the Ariège Pyrenees, while the curling shapes engraved onto half-round rods are the work of groups in the French Pyrenees.

Rondelle découpée à la vache et au veau du Mas d’Azil Le « Faon aux oiseaux »

The environment Share page with AddThis

Fifteen thousand years ago, southwestern France had a much drier and colder climate than it does now. The flora and fauna were thus quite different from what they are today. The landscape, which resembled a steppe or a tundra, had very few trees, and herds of hooved mammals roamed across vast stretches of territory. Several methods, described below, allow researchers to reconstruct the ancient climate and the natural resources that would have been available to late Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers.

Climat Share page with AddThis


Drilling and core sampling carried out on ocean floors and residual icecaps in Greenland and Antarctica have allowed scientists to reconstruct climate changes. Oxygen isotope ratio cycles provide information about local temperatures and the total volume of ice on the continents. Foraminifera, molluscs and insects are also reliable climate indicators.
The last glacial period of the Pleistocene reached its maximum extent some 20,000 years ago (Pleniglacial), a time when vast areas of the Earth were covered in a thick layer of ice. The Middle Magdalenian period (ca. 13,000–15,000 years BP) marked the beginning of the Tardiglacial, a time of climatic instability which gave rise to the relative stability of the Late Glacial Maximum. Sea levels were some 120 metres lower than the current shorelines. The variations connected with Heinrich Event 1 (H1) were swift and large-scale. One of the key consequences was that huge quantities of fresh cold water from melting icebergs were released quickly, which cooled surface waters and triggered desertification. The prevailing climate during the Middle Magdalenian was thus very cold and dry.

Flora Share page with AddThis

Climatic conditions affect the distribution of wildlife but also, inevitably, have an impact on plants. The field of archaeobotany covers several specialties (palynology, anthracology) that focus on the interactions between human societies and the plant world based on microscopic and macroscopic vestiges. Unlike cave palynology, which is the source of significant taphonomic problems, marine palynology has the advantage of rapid sedimentation and better registering of phenomena. Studying pollens also allows scientists to compare changes in vegetation with climate indicators. During the Middle Magdalenian, the flora consisted of a sagebrush steppe and grasses (Poaceae) and few trees. Pine was the dominant tree but its abundance varied depending on the sector. Plant consumption by human groups during the Palaeolithic is difficult to prove. Ultimately, abundant animal remains are the source of our knowledge of the natural resources for the period. 

Fauna Share page with AddThis

The region's climate and topography created ideal territory for large herds of hooved mammals, or ungulates. In southwest France, the most frequent herbivores that can be identified from bones include reindeer, horses, bison and saiga antelopes. The saiga antelope, which exists today in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, was very present in the Gironde. It is also present in the animal remains in the shelters at Roc-aux-Sorciers, Chaire-à-Calvin and Cap Blanc. The reindeer now inhabits the northernmost parts of the globe (Greenland, Scandinavia, North America, etc.). The ungulates present in the Magdalenian sites had thus adapted to open environments (tundra/taiga and continental steppe). Other species native to arctic and temperate biotopes (mammoth, muskox, ibex, chamois, red deer, deer, boar) are also present, but more sporadically. Birds (Lagopus, chough, etc.), fish (salmon, pike and trout) and microfauna (steppe polecat, vole, etc.) also attest to very cold climatic conditions. The ever-present wolf was the major predator.

Exploited resources Share page with AddThis

Archaeozoology, which looks at how animal carcasses were acquired and processed, provides information on the relationships between people and animals. In southwest France, the reindeer was the game of choice. Whole carcasses were brought back to camp, suggesting that hunting took place nearby. By analysing cut-marks, archaeozoologists can reconstruct the various phases of how animals were butchered. Long bones systematically show signs of fracturing related to the collection of marrow for consumption. Ungulates were intensively exploited, and not only for food. Bones were used as fuel and sometimes show signs of harvesting of raw materials (leather, wood, bones, teeth, tendons, etc.) and of technical activities (leather processing, production of domestic tools and weapons, the creation of ornaments and works of art, etc.). Magdalenian hunter-gatherers adapted perfectly to the climate and took full advantage of the plants, animals and minerals in their surroundings.

The Magdalenian lifestyle Share page with AddThis

Magdalenian populations had a very different way of life from the one that has underpinned society since the Neolithic era. They lived by hunting, fishing and gathering, and took what they needed from the natural world. As nomads, they set up house in natural shelters or in outdoor huts. Meetings and exchanges filled the life of these societies, which had dense and extensive socio-economic networks.

Hunter-gatherers Share page with AddThis

The Magdalenian subsistence economy was based on hunting and gathering. Large herbivores were the primary source of game. Which animals depended on the biotope: reindeer, of course, but also deer, horse, bison, and saiga antelope. In the mountains, ibex were also targets of specialised hunting expeditions. They were hunted with the sagaie, which was launched using a propulsion device. Ideally suited for use in open spaces, this powerful weapon offered the Magdalenian hunters speed, power and accuracy. The use of bows remains hypothetical for the period, and trapping was likely, although we cannot be completely certain.
The invention of a dedicated fishing tool, the harpoon, caused an unprecedented upsurge in fishing some 13,000 years BP. Fish was likely dried, salted or smoked, and would have represented an excellent dietary supplement. Fishing basically took place in rivers (mainly salmon and trout). However, at coastal sites, shellfish and fish were widely consumed.
It is nearly impossible to say much about gathering activities for these periods, since the foods consumed only rarely leave traces. However, the gathering of bulbs, tubers, roots, berries and mushrooms is certain, since the lipid and protein intake in meat and fish are insufficient for the human diet.

Collectors Share page with AddThis

In addition to food, all of the materials used by Palaeolithic peoples were taken from the wild, either for fashioning both utilitarian and symbolic objects (rocks, antlers, bones, shells, hides), or for building habitats (wood, animal skins). In the Magdalenian era, collection of raw materials was accompanied by expanded mobility in the search for quality materials.
For rocks (including flint), there is evidence of stockpiling of raw materials or pre-shaped pieces from which blades and bladelets were created. In France, flint from the Périgord and Cher were particularly sought-after. They are regularly unearthed hundreds of kilometres from their source.
In the symbolic realm, the same is true for shells, whose role in body ornament took an unprecedented surge. The Magdalenians sought out and used shells from the Atlantic and Mediterranean shorelines. They also visited very specific fossil deposits (Gironde, Touraine), whose contents have been found throughout the western half of France. 
These far-flung sourcings were either the result of direct acquisitions through physical displacement or of gradual trading. At what distance does trade become more likely than direct acquisition? How can one estimate the number of intermediaries?

Semi-nomads Share page with AddThis

Hunting and gathering activities require seasonal mobility, based in particular on the migration of herds of large herbivores and schools of fish. In all likelihood, this nomadism was also influenced by flowering cycles and the growth of plant resources.

From ethnographic sources we learn that hunter-gatherer populations alternated between dividing up into small groups and coming together again for activities requiring many individuals. Lasting from between a few weeks to a few months, these larger groups had various economic (major hunts, trading in raw materials and/or finished items), social (marriage exchanges) and spiritual (art, rituals) functions.
Various types of occupations that have been identified as Magdalenian appear to fit this pattern: brief occupations with few individuals focused on a specific activity (hunting stopovers, sites near deposits of raw materials) co-exist with longer occupations, involving more people with a larger scope of activities, primarily domestic and cynegetic in nature (residential sites) (Etiolles). Finally, some sites indicate particularly intense occupation periods, with a wide range of activities, particularly in relation to the symbolic sphere (the creation of jewellery, portable art and wall art) (Mas d'Azil).

Habitat Share page with AddThis

Without going so far as to invoke a more settled way of life, the Magdalenian period is characterised by greater emphasis on longer-term habitation, nomadism alternating with long-term occupations that may have been repeated from one year to the next.
There were different types of installations. The Magdalenians regularly took advantage of natural shelters, moving into rock shelters and well-exposed cave mouths. All they needed to do was close off the habitat with light structures and hides – possibly using loops pierced in the walls. In contrast, deep cave habitats are extremely rare.
The Magdalenian also lived in outdoor encampments. The sites of Pincevent and Étiolles in the Greater Paris basin are made up of small circular residential structures (tents or huts) that were covered with skins held to the ground by stones. Brace-holes for a lightweight frame, probably made of wood, have been found in Gönnersdorf, Germany.
Habitats were organised, and the ground may have been either paved or tiled. Space was divided into specific activity zones. In Pincevent and Étiolles, the centre of the site was taken up by a hearth, around which spatially-circumscribed activities took place (flint knapping, manufacturing of equipment from bone, weapon repair). Off to one side was the sleeping area, devoid of any vestiges.
In the Gartempe Valley, not far from Roc-aux-Sorciers, the Taillis des Coteaux site provides evidence of a Middle Magdalenian occupation. These sites reflect the movement phases of groups during that era.
Entrée de la grotte de Marsoulas (Midi-Pyrénées)

Social organisation Share page with AddThis

We know very little about the social organization of the Magdalenian populations. We have no ethnographic sources, which are vital for dealing with this issue in populations that have no writing. Moreover, archaeological evidence on which to base an approach is incomplete, due to the fact that certain materials decay more quickly than others. However, a few elements shed light on certain aspects of social life 15,000 years ago.
At the Pincevent and Étiolles sites in the Parisian basin, the small tent sizes suggest that the basic social unit was the nuclear family. However, we do not know how many nuclear families made up a group, nor, above all, the type of connections (clan? tribal?) that held them together.
Some evidence points to the existence of artisans or specialised individuals, including the production of large flint blades, certain portable art and some wall art. Their technical and/or iconographic qualities could not have been available to all, and would have required acquisition of a complex set of skills.
Finally, the circulation, sometimes across hundreds of miles, of materials (rocks and shells), objects and concepts (artistic techniques) testifies to numerous and extensive contacts between groups. The form that these exchanges took must have been based on various socio-economic realities such as trade, gifts, exogamy, etc.

Clothing Share page with AddThis

We have no direct data concerning Palaeolithic clothing, since no organic materials have come down to us from these periods (skins, furs, feathers, etc.). Representations on walls and objects do not provide any information, since humans are depicted naked. Only one engraved figure in the Gabillou Cave appears to be wrapped in a thick hooded coat. At the very most, a single print of a foot clad in a flexible material has been identified on the floor of the Fontanet Cave.
And yet, material found in archaeological layers provides an indirect source of information. Eyed needles were already in use at that time. They were small (25–80 mm), and most often fashioned from bone. Other, larger objects – such as punches and awls – could have been used to drill and assemble thicker parts. These tools show that the Magdalenian wore clothes that were sewn, probably using sinew and plant fibres.
We must therefore imagine that men and women were fully clothed, wearing shoes and probably also headgear in order to survive in harsh climatic conditions. In addition, we must not forget that these people wore personal adornments. Small elements of various types and forms, whose use grew exponentially among the Magdalenians, could have been assembled into necklaces, bracelets and other types of bands, or sewn directly onto clothing. Finally, although this practice is not confirmed, body-painting and tattooing could have been practised.

Equipment Share page with AddThis

Like other Upper Palaeolithic cultures, the Magdalenians possessed a variety of technical equipment suitable for their many daily activities and related to hunting and fishing. The vestiges than have come down to us are made of either mineral or animal materials (antler, bone, ivory) and were placed at the working end of implements. Sheaths and other items fashioned from wood and plant fibres, now long vanished, should also be included.

Tools Share page with AddThis

Flint was the primary material for objects for domestic activities. These consisted of blades used as is or reworked along one edge for cutting and slicing, including scrapers for cleaning hides and wood, burins for grooving and sawing, and awls for perforating.
This set of flint tools was supplemented by various implements made of bone. Perforated batons are generally thought to be sagaie straighteners, as seen in Eskimo tribes. The sagaie is inserted into the hole. By pulling on the shaft, bending can be gradually applied to the entire length of the sagaie to correct its natural curvature. Other hypotheses have been advanced, such as their use in fastening systems. Eyed needles and bone awls were used in sewing. There are also spatulas and smoothers made from flat and long bones (ribs), which were used to work flexible materials.
Finally millstones and grinding stones, sometimes mere stone disks, were used, particularly for obtaining ochre powder that was used in various technical, artistic and symbolic activities, and also possessed cleansing properties. Finally, domestic equipment also included bladders made of hide, bowls and other recipients made of wood or wicker, and perhaps also baskets.
Outils domestiques paléolithiques Nécessaire à couture paléolithique

Weapons Share page with AddThis

The weapons produced by the Magdalenians were mainly used for hunting. Flint spear tips and sagaie points are found in abundance, but their wooden shafts have not survived. Made of antler or ivory, the points took on various shapes, depending on the era and the region (round, oval, half-round, rectangular, etc.). The base may be solid, single-bevelled, double-bevelled or even forked, suggesting many different means for attaching the shaft. Flint shards or small stone points (retouched bladelets) were sometimes stuck into grooves and sealed with resin.
The propulsion device, of which only the hooks – fashioned out of antler or tusk – survive, are richly decorated for the most part. They gave great power and accuracy when thowing sagaie, which was particularly useful when hunting large animals in open landscapes such as those existing in the Magdalenian era. In contrast, we have no formal evidence that bow hunting existed for these periods.
In the late Magdalenian, another throwing weapon appeared: the harpoon, which was distinguished by its removable antler tip. It had lateral barbs that varied in number and shape and were placed on one or both sides. The base had lateral projections that were used to attach the harpoon to the shaft. Harpoons were supplemented with gigs – small, pronged objects that were supposedly used in hunting birds.
Propulseur expérimental Propulseur au faon et à l'oiseau de Bédeilhac

Techniques Share page with AddThis

To make their weapons and tools, the Magdalenians made use of both specialised and standard techniques. In terms of stone-working, household tools were made of blades, whereas sagaie points required bladelets. Blades and bladelets were highly standardised. Obtaining them required lengthy, meticulous preparation of a stone block that was knapped with a striker (stone, wood, an antler branch) in order to hive off blades from larger blocks, and bladelets from smaller ones. Blades and bladelets were then either used as is, or knapped further to create a cutting edge or a point, or to develop the base in order to attach it. The knapping methods used in the Magdalenian reveal, on one hand, a great deal of knowledge about the physical properties of rocks, and on the other hand the learning of which actions to perform. They thus display great technical know-how – the technical mastery involved in creating large blades required specialised craftsmen.
Objects made of antler were crafted from baguettes obtained by double-grooving, which were then scraped to create their final form.
Spear points as well as some tools were hafted in various ways, as can be seen in the diversity of sagaie points. Outstanding discoveries in Lascaux and Pincevent demonstrate the use of resin and ochre-based adhesives.

Materials Share page with AddThis

Flint lends itself particularly well to shaping and was very heavily used by Palaeolithic peoples. Depending on local sources, other types of rock were also used, including chalcedony, quartz and quartzite, jasper, obsidian, etc. The Magdalenians appear to have increasingly sought high-quality stones, which they needed for their standardised production. Deposits of raw materials were sometimes hundreds of kilometres away: Bergerac flint was disseminated throughout the Aquitaine basin, from the Pyrenees to Poitou. It was transported in the form of small blocks of raw material, but also as blades, bladelets and finished objects directly cut from the source. The assumption of trade is not to be excluded for the greatest distances, as such practices can be seen in portable art and adornment.
Antler was also widely used , and was either stripped from animal carcasses or simply collected when animals shed them in the autumn. Supplies of antler could be a problem, as it was not continuously available. Stockpiling could have taken place: at La Vache, for example, a great many shed antlers were worked, although they could only have been collected during a very short period each year.
Parures en coquillages Bois de chute de cervidé Le « Faon aux oiseaux »

The symbolic realm Share page with AddThis

Decorated walls Share page with AddThis

The term 'wall art' traditionally refers to the full range of graphic expression found on the walls of caves, in rock shelters and on boulders. Underground art is unique and specific to Palaeolithic Europe. Currently, we know of nearly three hundred decorated caves and shelters, mostly located in France, Italy and Spain . This is an exceptional concentration in the history of human graphic expression, particularly in the Magdalenian, a period that witnessed remarkable growth in the number of decorated caves.
The meaning of the works, which today eludes us, is likely related to the function of the sites they adorn (occupations, "sanctuaries"). To create them, Palaeolithic people used various techniques that they sometimes combined: fine and deep engraving, painting and sculpture. The support was critical, as volumes and shapes were often exploited in the composition of the works.
Habitats are rarely associated with rock art during the Prehistoric period. Rock shelters were the preferred setting for this association, as they offering both protection and exposure to sunlight. However, contrary to popular belief, deep cave dwelling was exceptional. The combination of occupancy levels and decorated walls make rock shelters critical to our understanding of the historical and cultural context of European Palaeolithic cave art.
Petit cheval du Roc de Sers La

Portable art and decorative items Share page with AddThis

Portable art is defined as an art whose medium is portable, which includes both sculptures in the round and moulded clay along with weapons and tools in hard animal materials (harpoons, sagaie points, propellants, spatulas, polishers, half-round rods, pierced sticks, and so on), stone plates, pebbles and bones. These materials are often engraved, or more rarely painted, with geometric and/or figurative elements (animals, humans). The abundance and variety of Magdalenian portable art (in terms of media, techniques, themes and graphic conventions) play a critical role in describing this culture.
The Magdalenians showed unprecedented creativity in their creation of elements of adornment, seeking out new materials and inventing new forms. They augmented a common background of Palaeolithic animal teeth and shells with beads and pendants of various kinds.
Although ethnology offers clues as to the role of adornment (an individual's claim to membership in a group, to social status and/or to identity), we are ignorant as to its meaning in the Palaeolithic. Elements of adornment found in funerary contexts appear to suggests that men, women and children wore them, regardless of sex or age.
Portable art and decorative items attest to the existence of different regional cultural groups. For example, the contours découpés and perforated discs are characteristic of the Pyrenean Middle Magdalenian while engraved horse teeth is a regional indicator of groups in Poitou and Charente.
Bâton percé avec chevaux de La Madeleine Statuette de bison du Mas d’Azil Lame gravée d’une frise de lions de La Vache Rondelles découpées d’Arudy

Techniques Share page with AddThis

The Magdalenians possessed technical mastery, as can be seen in their combined use of engraving, sculpture, painting and drawing.
Engraving was the most commonly-used technique, perhaps because it lasts the longest. A number of different types of engraving have been found, including picking, grooving, scoring and scraping.
Both drawing (using a pure pigment such as charcoal) and painting (using a combination of pigment, binder and filler) made use of three basic colours – red, obtained from ochre or hematite, yellow from goethite, and black from manganese or charcoal. Blue and green were absent. Monochrome was often the rule. Various means were used to apply the colours, including fingers, charcoal sticks, brushes or pads; colours were also blown onto the surface.
Sculpture is quite common in portable art, but rare in cave art. There are two types of sculpture: in the round (where the volume carved on all sides) and relief (where the volume remains attached to the wall). Wall sculpture is only in relief; statuary is non-existent. Modelling (with clay) is extremely rare.
The incorporation of the support in the realization of graphics elements is one of the outstanding features of European Palaeolithic art. A support is said to "participant" when it serves as a framing element for compositions or when its visual (colour) or formal (reliefs, volumes) qualities are involved in the development of creations.
Le « petit Cheval » de Lourdes Tête humaine Le « Sorcier » ou le « Jocond » du Roc-aux-Sorciers Silhouettes humaines d'Isturitz

Themes and forms Share page with AddThis

Magdalenian art combines figurative and abstract elements. Figurative art consists primarily of depictions of wildlife: bison and horse are, generally speaking, the two most represented species, while ibex, deer, mammoths, aurochs and cats occupy a secondary position.
Other, rarer animal themes are also found at some sites: bear, muskox, saiga antelope, birds, fish, etc. The animals depicted do not seem to be connected with what was hunted; for example reindeer, which was quite sought after in the Magdalenian, is less represented than other animals that were not consumed as much. In this bestiary, depictions of humans are infrequent . 
Magdalenian art is distinguished by the realism of the animals. The bodies are complete and well proportioned, with detailed depictions of the main organs, muscle and bone protrusions and the coat. Humans, on the other hand, are often schematised and even misshapen. Some subjects are both human and animal. Finally, Magdalenian art also has many simple and complex geometric shapes. Depending on the region, the nature of the sites and the techniques used, the frequency of themes varies considerably.
Bloc gravé d’un cheval de Limeuil Propulseur aux trois chevaux du Mas d’Azil Bâton percé aux bisons de Laugerie-Basse Propulseur au renard d’Arudy Ellipse au serpent de Lortet

Magdalenian graves Share page with AddThis

Magdalenian burials are rare. The majority of human remains attributed to the Magdalenian are fragmentary and were not discovered in situ. Currently, five primary burials have been described: Cap Blanc, Laugerie-Basse, Chancelade in Dordogne, Lafaye in Tarn et Garonne, and Saint-Germain-la-Rivière in Gironde. They belong to the Middle Magdalenian, i.e. some 18–19,000 years BP).
Of these five graves, four correspond to women, while that at Laugerie-Basse contained the remains of a man. In the Lafaye Shelter, the adult female was accompanied by a child about three years old.
At Lafaye, the original position of the body is unknown. In other cases, the deceased were buried curled up, lying on their left side. At Laugerie-Basse, the man was adorned with perforated shells. At Saint-Germain-la-Rivière, the clothing of the woman was adorned with various shells and engraved deer teeth. The two bodies had been abundantly painted with ochre. The other individuals were neither dressed nor painted with ochre, and the excavation methods employed cast serious doubts on the existence of funerary objects, including at Saint-Germain-la-Rivière.
At Sordes, the 1874 excavations by Louis Lartet and Gatien Chaplain-Duparc yielded human remains, suggesting the presence of two heavily reworked graves of adults belonging to a recent phase of the Magdalenian.
Direct radiocarbon dating of the child skeleton at La Madeleine in Dordogne and those of the adults at Obercassel in Germany indicate that these graves, originally dated to the Middle Magdalenian, actually belong to the Azilian or Laborian (La Madeleine) and to the very late Magdalenian (Obercassel). It should also be noted that the three individuals were lying on their backs. The child was adorned with hundreds of teeth, and ochre was added.
The limited number of Magdalenian burials found to date suggests that burial was not a common funerary practice in this culture; others practices – less conducive to preservation – must have been used. Nevertheless, it is impossible to determine why only some individuals were buried.