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Neanderthal footprints discovered along shoreline in northern France

A total of 257 Neanderthal footprints have been discovered along the Normandy shoreline, offering major new clues into the social structure of France's prehistoric inhabitants.

Neanderthal footprints discovered along shoreline in northern France
Excavations at the Rozel site in Normandy. Photo AFP/Dominique Cliquet

The discovery of the footprints – immaculately preserved for more than 80,000 years – has given scientists vital clues on the size and composition of prehistoric social and family groups.

Their work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, suggests the band numbered 10 to 13 individuals, mostly children and adolescents, along with a few very tall, likely male adults who were up to 190 centimetres in height.

Jeremy Duveau, a doctoral student at France's National Museum of Natural History and one of the study's co-authors, told AFP the footprints were left in muddy soil, then quickly preserved by wind-driven sand when the area was part of a dune system, creating a snapshot in time.


One of the neanderthal footprints in the sand. Photo: AFP/ Dominique Cliquet

The Rozel site was discovered by amateur archeologist Yves Roupin in the 1960s, but it was not until 2012, when it was faced with the twin dangers of wind and tidal erosion, that annual excavations began with government support.

Tens of meters of sand were extracted with mechanical shovels to reach the layers that were of interest.

The team then switched to brushes to carry out the last phase of the delicate excavation work that led to the identification of 257 footprints between 2012 and 2017, and hundreds more since.

The footprints were found among what the team called “abundant archeological material” indicating butchery operations and stone tool production, and date back to a time when only Neanderthals, not anatomically modern humans, lived in western Europe.

Rapidly-preserved footprints offer an advantage over archeological or fossilized bone remains in estimating group sizes because these can accumulate over time and do not necessarily reflect a single occupation, unless a catastrophic event led to a whole group being killed at once.

Yet this strength is also footprints' main weakness: “They record a kind of snapshot into the lives of individuals over a very short period,” said Duveau.

“That gives us some insight into the composition of the group, but it is possible that it represents only those members of the group who happened to be outside at the time.”

The question thus becomes: were there so few adult footprints because Neanderthals died young? Or were the adults off somewhere else?

Each of the footprints was photographed and modeled in three dimensions. Casts were taken of a few of them using an elastomer, which is less rigid than plaster.

Thanks to an advanced new chemical technique available to the team since 2017, hundreds of the prints were lifted from the site to be preserved elsewhere.

Those which weren't extracted were “totally destroyed” by the wind, said Duveau.

“The conservation of footprints requires a sort of miracle: we have to get very, very lucky,” he concluded.

Before Rozel, only nine confirmed Neanderthal footprints have been found in Greece, Romania, Gibraltar and France.

Some of Rozel's casts have already been exhibited, including at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, and researchers want to find ways to broaden the audience through future exhibits.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Snobs, beaches and drunks – 5 things this joke map teaches us about France

A popular joke 'map' of France has once again been widely shared on social media, sparking endless jokes at the expense of certain regions of France.

Snobs, beaches and drunks - 5 things this joke map teaches us about France
Image AFP/cartesfrance.fr
But while the map – created by cartesfrance.fr – is clearly intended to be comic, it teaches us some important points about France’s regional divides, local stereotypes and in-jokes.
 

 
 
 
Here are some of the key points.
 
1. Everyone hates Parisians
 
The map is purportedly France as seen through the eyes of Parisians, and contains a series of snobbish and rude generalisations about every part of France that is not maison (home) in the capital and its surroundings. The great majority of the country is labelled simply as paysans (peasants).
 
The general stereotype about Parisians is that they are snobs, rudely judging the rest of the country which they regard as backwards and full of ploucs (yokels) apart from small areas which make nice holiday destinations.
 
Like all sweeping generalisations, this is true of some people and very much not of others, but one of the few things that can unite people from all areas of France is how much they hate les parigots têtes de veaux (a colloquialism that very roughly translates as ‘asshole Parisians’)
 
 
2. Staycations rule
 
Even before Covid-related travel restrictions, holidaying within France was the norm for many French people.
 
As the map shows, Parisians regard the southern and western coastlines as simply plages (beaches) which they decamp to for at least a month in July or August. In the height of summer French cities tend to empty out (apart from tourists) as locals head to the seaside or the countryside.
 
 
In winter the Pyrenees and Alps are popular ski destinations.
 
3. Northerners like a drink
 
There is a very widespread stereotype, although not really backed up by evidence, that the people of Normandy, Brittany and the Nord area like a drink or two. Many suggest this is to cope with the weather, which does tend to be rainier than the rest of France (although has plenty of sunshine too).
 
 
Official health data doesn’t really back this up, as none of these areas show a significantly greater than average rate of daily drinkers, although Nord does hold the sad record for the highest rate of people dying from alcohol-related liver disease.
 
What’s certainly true is that Brittany and Normandy are cider country, with delicious locally-produced ciders on sale everywhere, well worth a try if you are visiting.
 
 
4. Poverty
 
The map labels the north eastern corner of France as simply pauvres – the poor.
 
The north east of the country was once France’s industrial and coal-mining heartland, and as traditional industries have declined there are indeed pockets of extreme poverty and high unemployment. The novel The End of Eddy, telling the story of novelist Edouard Louis’ childhood in a struggling small town near Amiens, lays out the social problems of such areas in stark detail.
 
However poverty is not just confined to one corner of France and the département that records the highest levels of deprivation is actually Seine-Saint-Denis in the Paris suburbs.
 
5. Southern prejudice
 
According to the map, those from the south are either branleurs (slackers) or menteurs (liars). 
 
This isn’t true, obviously, there are many lovely, hard-working and truthful people in southern France, but the persistent stereotype is that they are lazy – maybe because it’s too hot to do much work – and slightly shifty.
 
Even people who aren’t actually rude about southerners can be pretty patronising, as shown when south west native Jean Castex became the prime minister in summer 2020. 
 
Castex has a noticeable south west accent which sparked much comment from the Paris-based media and political classes, with comments ranging from the patronising – “I love his accent, I feel like I’m on holiday” – to the very patronising – “that accent is a bit rugby” (a reference to the fact that TV rugby commentators often come from France’s rugby heartlands in the south west).
 
 
In his first year as PM, Castex has undertaken a dizzying schedule of appointments around the four corners of France, so hopefully the lazy myth can now be put to bed.
 
And anyone tempted to take the piss out of his accent – glottophobie (accent prejudice) is now a crime in France.
 
For more maps that reflect France, head to cartesfrance.fr
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