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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although graphic elements appear throughout the Upper Palaeolithic and perhaps even as early as the Middle Palaeolithic with Neanderthal Man, The Magdalenian is thought to be a time of artistic outpouring, probably connected to a population increase. Various supports were used (shelter and cave walls, boulders, rocks, worked stone, pebbles, stone slabs, adornment, etc.) in connection with both everyday life and more symbolic activities, with the two spheres occasionally overlapping.