Synopsis: Long before there were people, France was a frozen tundra. This episode looks at France from 3 million years ago until the first humans arrived, as the French landscape went through incredible environmental change.
Hello, and welcome to the French history podcast, episode 2. I’m your host, Gary Girod. Today we are going on a 2 million year journey from the beginning to the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, which began 2.5 million years ago and ended around 11,000BCE with the warming of the climate. This was an intensely cold time in Europe’s past. Ireland, Scandinavia and most of Britain were almost entirely covered in ice. Those parts of Continental Europe that weren’t covered by glaciers were mostly tundras, comparable to modern-day Northern Siberia.
Not only was this an extremely cold period, the shape of Europe was far different than it is today. Due to intense glaciation in the northern parts of the world, the sea levels were much lower than they are today. France and Britain were connected all across what is now the English Channel. This stretch of low-land reached all the way to Denmark.
The land that we call France during this time had a tundral climate. Tundras are ecozones incapable of supporting trees, and instead are covered in dwarf shrubs, grass, moss and lichen, due to the subsoil being permanently frozen, inhibiting trees from laying down deep roots. Temperatures in a tundra regularly drop to around -30C or -20F, and can get to -50C or -60F. These are harsh lands. Due to the wide open spaces without any tree coverage they are constantly buffeted by strong, biting winds, meaning that with the windchill these areas can be far below the temperatures just listed. During summer, the permafrost relents just long enough for small plants to grow, before colder weather wreaks havoc on the plant life. These lands are sparsely populated by animals conditioned to survive in the cold, namely, Arctic foxes, polar bears, elk, musk-ox, anything with a thick fur coat. Wooly mammoths used to roam across France but died out sometime between 10,000-5,000BCE, partly due to the changing environment and partly due to overhunting by humans. For most of the Pleistocene Epoch Northern France was too cold for human habitation, as most humans preferred the south. However, some human ancestors, such as Neanderthal, may have lived in Northern France as early as 40,000BCE, thirty thousand years before the Pleistocene Epoch ended.
Southern France, particularly bordering the warmer Mediterranean, was a taiga, or boreal forest. The closest comparison to today would be in middle to northern Canada. Taigas are capable of hosting tree-life as most of the year the ground isn’t frozen. Taiga temperatures are around 10C or 50F in summer. Wintertime temperatures vary but they are well-below freezing. Due to the cold weather, taigas experience little rain. Taigas are dominated by thin trees, due to the relatively poor soil and cold, which is inhospitable to oaks, maples, elms, and other trees found in temperate climates. Very few food-bearing plants grow in the taiga, though wild berries remain an exception. Animals in the taiga require some kind of insulation, including fur or layers of fat. Bears, hares, wolves, coyotes, beavers, types of birds, all live in the taiga, while there are relatively few reptiles and cold-blooded animals. If you don’t like snakes and don’t mind freezing temperatures, this is your ecozone.
Around 20,000 the glaciers began to seriously recede, into the northern reaches of Ireland and Britain. Until around 12,000 BCE Britain was a round peninsula. To the east of Britain was a low area called ‘Doggerland.’ Which stretched almost halfway to Denmark and connected with Denmark during the height of the Pleistocene’s glaciation. Because Doggerland was near sea levels it was marshy and swamp-like with numerous peat bogs. It was home to many deer and wooly mammoths. Doggerland was a hunting ground for both Neanderthals and humans before rising sea-levels forced the inhabitants to flee to mainland Europe or Britain, which was quickly cut off from the Continent.
Paleolithic (3.3 mya -9,650 BCE):
Now it’s time to bring early hominids into our story and talk about the first French men and women. It’s worth noting here that geologists and historians have different, overlapping time-scales. Geologists like to use the term ‘epoch’ while historians use the term ‘age,’ which isn’t nearly as flashy as geologists, but we can’t win them all. The geological epoch known as the Pleistocene Epoch, corresponds with the historical Paleolithic Age, or ‘Old Stone Age,’ which stretches from 3.3 million years ago to roughly 10,000 BCE. Between 1 million and 450,000 years ago Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis lived in southern France along the Mediterranean and near the Pyrenees with the very earliest humans possibly living near modern-day Montpellier as far back as 1.5 million years ago. These early humans used primitive stone tools, were hunter-gatherers and lived in caves, while possibly constructing simple shelters. These groups hunted bears, panthers and wooly mammoths in groups, while establishing primitive huts outside caves. Homo erectus was a pioneer of human development, they truly were the astronauts of their time. They were the first to live in hunter-gatherer societies and develop language, and served as the largest delineation between humans as shapers of nature and part of nature. Homo erectus never truly died out, and instead their descendants became Homo heidelbergensis.
Homo heidelbergensis is a much closer relative of humans, that were capable of using more advanced tools and had greater sociability. Yet, a major distinction between modern humans and Homo heidelbergensis is that the latter did not produce art. While they possessed the mental capacity to organize and survive better than their ancestors their ability to develop abstract thought was far more limited than modern humans. As such, they did not leave behind cave paintings, sculptures, or monuments and the artifacts they did leave behind are solely related to their struggle to survive. A prime example of this is found at a dig site in Southeastern France known as Terra Amata. Around 400,000 BCE, near-modern day Nice is a small encampment, capable of housing 25 people. Along with the settlement itself, archeologists discovered alongside a hearth, showing they had mastered how to make fire. Furthermore, this small camp contained cleavers and knives, which prove that these early humans prepared meat.
Next in our chain of human evolution were the infamous Neanderthals. Neanderthals are thought to have arrived in France around 300,000 BCE, and lived there until their extinction in 30,000 BCE. Neanderthals were of roughly similar height to homo sapiens, being around 166 centimeters, or 66 inches tall, for males and 154 centimeters or roughly 61 inches for females. The major anatomical difference between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals was that Neanderthals had barrel-chested bodies and large limbs, which made them much stronger. A common belief is that Neanderthals were stupider, ape-like counterparts to Homo sapiens, but modern science refutes this. Neanderthals possessed larger brains than humans, which doesn’t automatically mean they were more intelligent but they certainly weren’t the dumb apes so commonly depicted in movies and television. Furthermore, their eyesight was probably better than modern humans. They also possessed precision-gripping and created tools that were far more refined than those used by Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis. These tools were made of bone, wood, ivory and antler, unlike the stone tools of their ancestors. Neanderthals understood seasonal change, hunting elk in winter and horse and bison in summer. These peoples were highly sociable, and hunted and lived in groups. Today, scientists are engaged in heated debate over whether Neanderthals were capable of the abstract thought necessary to produce culture and religion. Those defenders of Neanderthals point to routine feather-plucking, burials with flowers, and deep scratching on caves are evidence that Neanderthals had some rudimentary religious ideas. While these may mean Neanderthals had abstract thoughts, they left behind no monuments, meaning that we may never know the breadth of their intellectual capacities.
Scientists don’t know why French Neanderthals died out around 30,000 BCE. Since Homo sapiens arrived in Neanderthal-populated areas around 40,000 BCE the earliest hypothesis was that they were killed off by these newcomers. Now, DNA sequencing has shown Neanderthals interbred with humans, so this hypothesis has lost some of its weight. One theory is that Neanderthals couldn’t adapt as well to the warming environment. Moreover, if humans were better at hunting and gathering then humans may have unintentionally killed off the Neanderthals. This is a possibility as archeology has shown Neanderthals occasionally became so desperate for food that some resorted to cannibalism during periods of starvation. A recent theory that has been gaining traction is that humans had very little impact on the death of Neanderthals. Through genetic studies scientists have deduced that Neanderthals primarily hunted big game, such as aurochs, elk, bison, horses and cave bears. Meanwhile, Homo sapiens had a much broader diet which included hares, foxes, other small species and even fish and oysters. When the planet warmed Continental Europe became less hospitable for larger animals adapted to the cold. Keep in mind, when Neanderthals came to Continental Europe it was divided between tundra and taiga. Global warming heated the planet to such an extent that modern-day tundras have receded to the tips of northern Canada and Russia, while taigas are now confined to Canada, Scandinavia and Russia. The climate Neanderthals were used to, and what their prey were used to, was disappearing relatively rapidly. As a result, the slow-moving, meaty prey of Neanderthals was disappearing and being replaced by fast-moving, smaller animals. Humans ate pretty much anything that moved, allowing them to adapt, while Neanderthals’ inability to hunt fast-moving animals meant they couldn’t acquire a reliable food source.
One thing to keep in mind is that extinction for those in the human family, known as Homininae, is more common than one might think. Nowadays we assume that humans and our early relatives are categorically above most animals in their ability to survive. Yet, Homininae lived in a dangerous time, and were often very few in number. A new disease, a mudslide, storm, tsunami, fire, could wipe out an entire tribe. Scientists believe at one point human beings numbered only 1,000 across the whole planet, during a period where homo sapiens nearly went extinct. Consequently, it is this reason why human beings are so similar across races, and any two human beings on Earth are more alike in genetic make-up than any two chimpanzees taken from different families in the same region. While many people ask, “Why did the Neanderthals go extinct?” extinctions for all animal species are common, with over 99.9% of all animal species that have ever existed going extinct, including those in the Homininae family. To scientists, asking why Neanderthals went extinct is probably a silly question, because nearly all species go extinct. Why Homo sapiens survived is a far more puzzling question. Based on what I’ve read, it seems Homo sapiens survived into the modern era because we’ll eat pretty much anything, something which I learned from personal experience. Five years ago, I went to the Orange County fair with some friends to see an Earth, Wind and Fire concert. While there, one of my friends ate deep-fried cherry Kool-Aid. As disgusted as I was then, I now realize that this ability to scarf down anything is probably why Homo sapiens survived catastrophic environmental change and came to dominate the planet. But, all the same, don’t eat county fair food.
Now, let’s talk about Homo sapiens. The earliest modern humans – Cro-Magnons – were present in Europe 43,000 years ago during a long interglacial period of particularly mild climate, when Europe was relatively warm, and food was plentiful. The peoples of the paleolithic were non-Indo-Europeans, probably migrating west through Turkey, the Balkans and Italy before arriving in Southern France. Life for these early inhabitants of France was cold and grim. One Cro-Magnon habitation was found in the Grotte de Rennes, 60 miles southwest of Paris. This cave was little different than a bear’s, as the ground was littered with animal bones, and there was no place for a fire. The average early humans had a life expectancy of about 30 years, and that was only if they lived past childhood. At this time, women gave birth to around 9 live children, and half of those wouldn’t make it to 15 years old. If we include still-births, most human beings at this time didn’t live past childhood. Without contraceptives, fertile women were almost always pregnant, and very often died due to complications. It’s hard to say what the leading cause of death was for these peoples, though anthropologists who have studied non-state societies found that murder rates are extremely high. Among Ecuadorian Amazons known as the Waorani, 60% of all deaths have been traced to homicide. Among Blackfoot Plains Native Americans in the early 19th century, that number was 50%. Similar numbers are found among numerous hunter-gatherer societies from places as distant as Papua New Guinea, inner Africa and in Europe, such as the tribes of highland Montenegro. Death was such a common part of daily life and without a state to arbiter disputes, it is possible that many humans who survived into adult died in violent conflict with other humans.
Early human life wasn’t all bleak at first, as the early French inhabitants left behind cave paintings and simple sculptures, showing that these people were finally capable of the abstract thought required to develop complex cultures, language and societies. Furthermore, they possessed egalitarian societies, were food was evenly distributed among their members, showing that these early French dwellers could possess a great care for each other, and believed their strength derived from the group, rather than the individual. At some point, perhaps around 10,000BCE these early humans made tailored-clothing, though when exactly this began is hard to know, since these rotted over time.
Around 30,000 BCE humans created small stone statuettes called Venus figurines. Venus figurines are among the oldest works of art left by humans anywhere on Earth, and can be found in diverse places across Europe. These statuettes commonly depict a woman with large breasts, extending stomach and very wide hips. Early theorists claimed that these statuettes were idols, worshipped as fertility goddesses. More recent scholarship purposes a far more fascinating theory. The new hypothesis is that these statuettes were carved by women, and they have their figure derives from a woman’s perspective. The theory holds that when women look down at their own bodies those feminine parts are accentuated, and look very similar to the Venuses. This theory is particularly interesting as it would mean that women played an important role in these societies and created the first known works of art tens of thousands of years before men became artists. Regardless of what the figurines represented or which gender made them, the Venuses show that finally, a species had come along capable of the abstract thought necessary to create culture.
Perhaps the crowning artistic achievement of the Paleolithic Era is the Chauvet Cave. The Chauvet Cave, located northwest of modern-day Avignon, contains some of the oldest cave paintings in history, dating back to 30,000 BCE. The Chauvet Caves are remarkable because a landslide at the cave mouth preserved the paintings in pristine quality up to this day. While it is possible that there are older cave paintings in Spain and Indonesia, what remains of most cave paintings are small scratchings and faded smudges, whose images are lost to time. The cave-in at Chauvet, preserved these artworks in a state not too dissimilar from those who originally painted them 32 millenia ago.
These paintings are truly awe-inspiring, and I recommend watching Werner Herzogg’s documentary ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ if you want to see the remarkable artworks. A podcast cannot do the Chauvet Caves justice, as these paintings are the Sistine Chapel of early human art. The cave contains incredible images of all kinds of animals, including panthers, bears, bison, lions and elk. Even some extinct figures appear, such as mammoths, aurochs and wooly rhinoceros. Furthermore, overlapping images portray these animals in motion, and archeologists theorize that shadows from torches created the illusion of movement. Adding to this theory is that one of the animals is painted with eight legs, instead of four, clearly depicting it in motion. This meant that these artists, who lived 32,000 years ago already understood optical illusions. Due to the contours of the cave, the artists had to adapt their images across the wall’s curvature, giving these animals a 3-dimensional aspect. Further evidence of thought is present in collections of odd markings that may have been the world’s first abstract art pieces. One of the simplest and most striking paintings is an outline of a human hand, surrounded by red dye which was blown across it while it was held on the cave wall. These humans literally imprinted themselves on the wall. Was the hand on the wall the first signature of an artist? Was it a claim, made by the tribe to the cave? Was it a magic sigil meant to symbolize the spiritual connection that these humans had with the cave? We can only imagine.
No full human body is depicted, though female genitalia is. Was this because the artists were women, like the sculptors of the Venus figurines? Or was this 32,000 year old smut? Again, we may never know. All that we do know is that these images are among the most striking our earliest ancestors ever produced and showed that in France highly-developed, visually-striking art predated every other non-subsistence venture. Art was the primary drive of early dwellers of France, while politics, law and government only came tens of thousands of years later, and may as well be an inconvenient afterthought; an interruption in the pursuit of new forms of beauty.
Over the next 15,000 years, hunter-gather tribes of humans created cave paintings at Cosquer, Pech Merle, Lascaux, and a number of others, leaving their mark in secret across southern France, until their discovery millennia later. Alongside the paintings, carvings of animals on bones became increasingly common, as early humans created ornaments, either for religious, cultural, or purely decorative reasons.
Around 10,000 BCE most of the world’s ice coverage melted and the Holocene epoch, which is the current epoch we are living in. Life in France became even more hospitable to various flora and fauna. During this period humans became more omnivorous, and incorporated fish and other marine species into their diet. Ritual burials became more common. The Paleolithic Era finally ended around 10,000 BCE with the development of agriculture. The new period, known as the Mesolithic, or ‘Middle Stone Age’ saw enormous advances in human activity in France as humans became rooted to fixed locations.
We’ll leave off here, and next time we’ll talk about cataclysmic events in France, which included the emergence of agriculture, early settlements and the Indo-European invasion.
Ancient Encyclopedia (website)
Werner Herzogg’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. 2010 (film)
Chauvet caves archeology website.
Bahn, Paul G. and Vertut, Jean, Journey through the Ice Age, 1997.
Desdemaines-Hugon, Christine, Stepping-stones: A Journey through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne, 2010
Morin, Eugène, Reassessing paleolithic subsistence: The Neandertal and modern human foragers of Saint-Césaire. 2012