Settlement and Site Location in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic of the Vézère Valley, France



Human settlement is guided by a suite of economic and social decisions. Hunter-gatherer populations are not restricted by extensive ownership and often focus settlement on important resources. Analysis of settlement patterns left by these groups reveals key information about subsistence and sociality. Patterning among modern groups is extremely varied and represents a dynamic and adaptable land-use strategy. The antiquity of this adaptability is unknown, but comparisons with the patterns left by other hominin species often show it as a derived trait of Homo sapiens. However, most of these settlement models are built at a species level resolution and encompass great chronological and environmental variation. Also, the dense record of recent Homo sapiens populations makes the chance of recognizing settlement variability higher than for preceding hominin species. This project addressed these issues by testing aspects of species-level models for late Middle Paleolithic (Neanderthal) and early Upper Paleolithic (Homo sapiens) sites in the Middle Vézère Valley (Dordogne, France). This region has the advantages of diverse environmental characters and a well-understood archaeological chronology representing several subdivisions of these broad periods. Using tools from Geographic Information Systems, taphonomic biases in the sample were investigated and site locations correlated with relevant landscape characters. The patterns revealed both support and contradict aspects of species-level settlement models. Upper Paleolithic sites are found significantly closer to the river and at low elevation sheltered locations. They are more likely to be near natural fords in the river and have a good view of these areas. Middle Paleolithic sites, in contrast, are found in variable locations but more often on the higher elevation plateau and within a short distance from multiple biomes. The final distillation of these correlations reveals a pattern of Middle Paleolithic focus on heterogeneous environments where diverse resources would be available. Upper Paleolithic settlement is instead focused a specific environment, possibly indicating intense exploitation of a single resource. In this region, this appears to be places where migrating herd animals would be at a disadvantage, like river crossings and narrow valleys. In this small region there is a clear settlement difference between Middle and Upper Paleolithic populations, but more focused studies must be undertaken before these results can be broadly extended.


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  • Matthew Sisk

  • Self

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  • 2014-11-10

  • English

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