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La Cotte de St Brelade has always held a fascination for me, after early visits with Dr John Renouf and the Junior Members of the Societe Jersiaise. A cave in granite is unusual, and it is not surprising that it has been subject to dangerous rock falls in its history. The reader should be warned that because of this, and to preserver the site, the cave is barricaded off with barbed war and a locked gate.
Neanderthal man once lived here around 250,000 years ago - the earliest record we have of the occupation of the Channel Islands by an intelligent species.
At that time, with sea levels slightly below those at present, Jersey was part of Normandy, a peninsula jutting out from the coast. It was not until after the last Ice Age that the sea eroded the coastline, separating first Guernsey , then Jersey and finally the Ecrehouse from the mainland.
A popular account of La Cotte is given in "The Mystery of the Cave", written by Sonia Hillsdon and illustrated by Geraint Jennings, aimed at the 7-11 age group. For an imaginative reconstruction of Neanderthal man, see H.G. Well's short story "The Grisley Folk."
Recent DNA evidence (1997) suggests that the Neanderthals were not related to ourselves, but shared a common ancestor around 600,000 years ago. The evidence would seem to suggest that at some point one part of the ancestral line moved to Northern europe, adapting to local conditions, becoming what we term the "Neanderthals" (after bones first discovered in the Neander valley).
For some reason, this population remained apart from and distinct from the other line, evolving differently. The rapid (in evolutionary terms) divergence of small separated populations to survive in different conditionsis well argued by Stephen Jay Gould inter alia, and accordingly one would then expect, as seems to be the case, a period of relative stasis afterwards.
Steven Mithen has proposed that the characteristic that distinguishes modern humans from Neanderthals is an extended period of infancy and childhood, allowing for greater growth in intellectual abilities. It is known (Jay Gould), that this retention of infantile characteristics, known as neoteny, marks a major difference between humans and apes, and is reflected in an exceptionally greater life span than would be expected statistically. The existing evidence suggests that the maximum life expectancy of Neanderthals was probably late 30s to early 40s or perhaps younger, while for Homo sapiens at the time was perhaps around 50 years.
Around 40,000 to 30,000 years ago, the Neanderthals in Europe were replaced by the ancestors of modern man. No one knows for sure how or why they died out, although an interesting imaginative reconstruction was given by H.G. Wells in his short story - "The Grisly Folk".
Excavations have taken place from around 1910 onwards.
Robert R. Marett (1866 - 1943) worked on the palaeolithic site of from 1910 - 1914, recovering some hominid teeth and other remains of habitation by Nearnderthal man. He published "The Site, Fauna, and Industry of La Cotte de St. Brelade, Jersey" (Archaeologia LXVII, 1916).
In 1911, Arthur Smith Woodward (director of the geology department at the British Museum of Natural History) was asked by R.R. Marrett to inspected the findings at La Cotte.At the time, Woodward was engaged in the archaeological discovery of "Piltdown man", which later became notorious as a hoax, and he used a comparison of findings at La Cotte to argue for an early dating of his Piltdown material.
The Cambridge University excavations of the 1960s and 1970s found important examples of remains of Pleistocene mammals carried into La Cotte, including a pile of bones and teeth of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. Princes Charles took part (as a student) in these excavations, directed by Professor C.M.B. McBurney, which were published as "La Cotte de St. Brelade 1961 - 1978: Excavations by C.B.M. McBurney." (Geo Books, Norwich).
Katharine Scott, in 1980, published an article on the hunting methods used by Neanderthals at La Cotte (see below) entitled "Two hunting episodes of Middle Paleolithic Age at La Cotte Saint-Brelade, Jersey (Channel Islands)" (World Archeology 12:137-152. ),
From " Outline of British Archaeology" (e-text)
by Dr Ron Wilcox (copyright holder, permission granted)
( Ron Wilcox is an archaeologist who has excavated a number of medieval sites, including priories and castles, and teaches a distance-learning archaeology course on post-Roman and medieval archaeology at Bournemouth University. )
At La Cotte on the Channel island of Jersey, two piles of bone were discovered beneath a rock overhang. The animals represented include mammoth and rhino. They have been interpreted as the result of hunting drives across the granite headland so that small herds were forced over a cliff. Amongst the flint tools, handaxes are rare but very common are tools made from flakes struck from cores using the Levalloisian technique. This involves carefully shaping a nodule of flint so that one side is domed. At one end a striking platform is made by knocking off one end of the nodule to leave a flat surface. A blow on this striking platform knocks off a domed flake. The procedure can then be repeated as long as the nodule is big enough. What is left is shaped rather like a tortoise and so is known as a tortoise core.
A good many of the tools from La Cotte have been recycled or resharpened and this is thought to have been necessary because of an increasing scarcity of flint. The sequence of palaeolithic activity at La Cotte begins about 250,000 years ago and continues through until the last glaciation.