In the early twentieth century, interest in the archaeological Paleolithic was widespread. In July 1908, Amadee Bouyssonie, Jean Bouyssonie, and Louis Bardon – all trained prehistorians – were charged with completing an archaeological survey of the caves in the Dordogne region of south-central France, near the small village of La Chapelle-aux-Saints. This survey explored the region’s extensive complex of bouffias – limestone caves – conducted excavations and cataloged artifacts.
On August 3, 1908, a most curious skeleton was excavated in the second cave of their survey, near the small village of La Chapelle-aux-Saints. The Bouyssonies – trained in material culture but not skeletal anatomy – sent the skeleton to Paris for further study after its quick and careful excavation.
Jean Bouyssonie’s observation after the excavation was, “La fosse n’a pas une origine naturelle.” (“The pit does not have a natural origin.”) In other words, he surmised, the fossil was found in a burial context. French anatomist and geologist, Pierre Maracellin Boule in Paris, described the nearly-complete skeleton as that of a Neanderthal old man – reconstructing the skeleton with stooped posture and peculiar pathologies. The La Chapelle skeleton became a turning point for Neanderthal research.
Exciting as this find was, this Neanderthal individual, nicknamed the Old Man, was certainly not the first Neanderthal discovery – other Neanderthal fossils had been turning up for decades. The La Chapelle find, however, would spark more than a century of debate about prehistory, behavior, and the archaeological record. Few other Neanderthals – if any – before or after this specimen would become as much a cultural touchstone and foil in literature, science, and public opinion.
For decades, researchers would and did come back to the Old Man, trying out new methods, new hypotheses, and new explanations for how to make sense of Neanderthals.
References & Further Reading
Boule, Marcellin. L’homme fossile de La Chapelle-aux-Saints. Paris: Masson, 1911.
———. Les hommes fossiles: éléments de paléontologie humaine. Masson, 1921.
Bouyssonie, Amédée, Jean Bouyssonie, and L. Bardon. “Découverte D’un Squelette Humain Moustérien À La Bouffia de La Chapelle-Aux-Saints (Corrèze).” L’Anthropologie 19 (1908): 513–18.
Rendu, William, Cédric Beauval, Isabelle Crevecoeur, Priscilla Bayle, Antoine Balzeau, Thierry Bismuth, Laurence Bourguignon, et al. “Evidence Supporting an Intentional Neandertal Burial at La Chapelle-Aux-Saints.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 16, 2013, 201316780. doi:10.1073/pnas.1316780110.