Director’s Diary: France and Germany

Roc de Marsal with Harold Dibble

By Sharal Camisa, Executive Director of The Leakey Foundation

When I stood in the dimly lit overhang at Abri de Cap Blanc in the Dordogne region of France and my eyes beheld the carved horse in sandstone (15,000ya) I was reminded that the capabilities to imagine and create lie deep in our species’ DNA.


The Dordogne region of France is famous the world-over for housing some of the most spectacular and earliest evidence of creativity. For a few weeks in May 2016, a group of nineteen Leakey Foundation Trustees and Fellows visited many of these sites and met the people studying this area of prehistory. Following our visit to France, a group of eight intrepid travelers continued on to Leipzig, Germany, for an in-depth look at the research being conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, with excursions to an archeological site, a museum, and a zoo, with cultural activities too.

Caverne du Pont d'Arc, site of Chauvet with Jean Clottes

Caverne du Pont d’Arc, site of Chauvet with Jean Clottes

One of the most thrilling aspects of both tours was the time spent with the experts whose life work provides insight and evidence about our earliest ancestors. The roster of bright minds is too long to list, but a few provided a generous amount of time and energy to give our group a truly memorable experience. Rock art specialist Jean Clottes, archaeologist Harold Dibble, and paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin hosted us throughout our tours of France and Germany. They provided behind the scenes access as well as new (often unpublished) information about their research.

At Rouffignac Cave, Font-de-Gaume, Abri du Cap Blanc, Cougnac Cave and Pech-Merle, we were encouraged to think about those who would have made their way into these seemingly magical spaces. From the astonishing amount of mammoths depicted at Rouffignac (158 or 70% of all animals represented) to the various schematic human figures at Cougnac, almost identical to ones found at Pech Merle. In some examples from Font-de-Gaume, the paleolithic artists only needed to draw two or three lines to connect natural forms and turn them into animals; a frieze depicting bison reflects remarkable artistic skill. At Pech Merle there are footprints preserved in the ground, and on the “Spotted Horse Panel” (29,000ya) a horse practically gallops off the side of a cave wall. Its head is perfectly made from the shape of the jagged rock.

Frank Huffman, Victoria Fong, Lucy Todd, Barry Fong, Camilla Smith with Henry de Lumley, l'Institut de Paléontologie Humaine, Paris

Frank Huffman, Victoria Fong, Camilla Smith with Henry de Lumley, l’Institut de Paléontologie Humaine, Paris

Museums provided opportunities to see priceless collections up close and to ask curators questions. The group visited l’Institut de Paléontologie Humaine with Professor Henry de Lumley and spent time in the laboratories of the newly re-opened (2015) Musée de l’Homme in Paris. There was a private visit (the museum was closed) at the Musée National de Préhistoire in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac where we saw the bones of the Neanderthal child discovered in 1961 at Roc de Marsal, as well as the artistic reconstruction of that child by paleo-artist Élisabeth Daynès. (That exhibit would bring us full circle since we also visited Daynès’ art studio in Paris and the archaeological site of Roc de Marsal with lead investigator Harold Dibble.)

In Halle, Germany, we joined Dr. Jean Jacques-Hublin for a tour of the incomparable Halle State Museum of Prehistory. Such unique, artistically refined exhibits provoked awe as we gazed at the Nebra Sky Disc, contemplated the ritualistic burial of an infant with its puppy and a hoofless horse (extraordinary), and stepped backward as a life-sized elephant burst thru a wall. Creativity was not only to be found on dark cave walls and in museum exhibits but also in the remarkable atelier of Ms. Daynès, where we saw the painstaking work of adding hairs, one by one, onto a reconstruction of a hominid. Then there was also the engineered and artistic reconstructions of Lascaux and Chauvet.

Across the border in Germany, the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center at the Leipzig Zoo and the Schöningen site were two excursions that demonstrated the breadth of research funded by The Leakey Foundation. The primate research center focuses on the behavior and cognition of the four great apes, while the Schöningen site provides evidence of the earliest specialized tool kit, including wooden spears, 300,000 years old.

Jean-Jaques Hublin presents 3D printed gifts, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig

Jean-Jaques Hublin presents 3D printed gifts, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig

A day was spent at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig where researchers investigate humankind’s history from an interdisciplinary perspective. They are testing their hypotheses with imaginative, cutting edge projects, many funded by The Leakey Foundation, including 35 grants totaling almost half a million dollars, mostly in small seed grants to young scientists. At the MPI, we met an early career scholar and Leakey Foundation grantee Kathryn Fitzsimmons, who took us into her pitch-dark lab to teach us about luminescence dating. Director Svante Pääbo spoke to our small group about the tantalizing possibility that Neanderthals had language, and he is using genetic evidence to test his idea. In the Department of Human Evolution, Jean-Jacques Hublin has assembled a diverse group of thought leaders, including 32 people who joined our group for lunch to break bread and talk about human origins. This was a captivating experience for paleoenthusiasts like those traveling with The Leakey Foundation.

While strolling through the museum in Halle, I asked Jean- Jacques Hublin why he has dedicated his life to studying our earliest ancestors. He paused and then said in almost a whisper, “It connects us with people we have forgotten. It resuscitates those people. It is a fight against oblivion.” A truly eloquent and creative way indeed to explain why human origins research matters.


Click here to read a poem by Sharon Metzler Dow, a Leakey Foundation Fellow who was inspired by the cave art she saw while traveling with The Leakey Foundation Trustees and Fellows.  

Beyond the Cave Wall

Animal paintings on the wall of Chauvet Cave, France.

Sharon Metzler Dow is a Leakey Foundation Fellow. She traveled to France with The Leakey Foundation and wrote this poem inspired by her experiences on the trip. Read about this trip in Sharal Camisa’s Director’s Diary post.

Animal paintings on the wall of Chauvet Cave, France.

Animal paintings on the wall of Chauvet Cave, France.

Beyond the Cave Wall

Into the darkness
you called us.
At Chauvet, Font-de-Gaume, and Lascaux,
you carried pine torches and reindeer-fat lamps
into the black.
Bursts of light on limestone rock walls.
Past yellow stalagmites gleaming.
Past ceilings hung with ivory chandeliers
of stalactites icicle-thin.
Each one slowly dripping.

We step over puddles to follow your footprints fossilized —
your body weight pressed into this earth,
naked soles of your feet,
depressions of your toes, mud curling between.

Into deep caverns
you carried your charcoal, red ochre, and white kaolin.
In flickering light and shadow,
you summoned the bulge of a bison shoulder,
you stroked the long throat of a horse.
Over there, you etched the high slope of a mammoth’s back
with its hairy topknot.
And to the left, you dodged the horns of an aurochs bull.

In this fertile womb,
you pulled the animals from the stone.
In the heat of battle, two woolly rhinos clash horns.
In the heat of the hunt with eyes dilated and nostrils flared, a pride of lions leap.
In the heat of desire, a lion at the side of a lioness excited and responding.

On the ceiling at Rouffignac, four mares with calm eyes,
bellies heavy with foals dropped ready to birth.
A wish for smooth births for your clan?

At Pech Merle, the charcoal sketch of the half-bison, half-human.
That is you, shaman,
sliding between worlds
through crevices and cracks, fissures and folds,
in trance
to receive their powers
and they yours.

Shapeshifters.

Whose handprints surround the bison and the spotted horses?
What do the blood red and black spots portend
in these many caves?

Your paintings called for food and mates and offspring.
Forty thousand years later

we are here.

-Sharon Metzler Dow, 2016

Susan Reynolds, Sharon Metzler-Dow and Elizabeth Daynes, Atelier Daynes, Paris

From left: Susan Reynolds, Sharon Metzler Dow and Elizabeth Daynes, Atelier Daynes, Paris

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Grantee Spotlight: Jason Lewis

Jason Lewis

Jason E. Lewis is currently a Research Assistant Professor wth the Turkana Basin Institute and Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University. He was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our spring 2016 cycle for his project entitled “Pleistocene & Holocene archaeological assemblages from Kisese II Shelter, Tanzania.”

Jason Lewis

The interval between ~60,000 and 30,000 years ago (ka) is a critical one in the history of modern humans: this period saw multiple population expansions of Homo sapiens across Eurasia, the initial colonization of Australasia, and the phased extinction of other hominins such as the Neanderthals. Human population history in Africa at this time is less well known, but includes the Middle to Later Stone Age (MSA-LSA) transition, a series of archaeological shifts that may signal key behavioral responses to cognitive, demographic, or environmental changes that may be tied to across- and out-of-Africa dispersals.

Mary Leakey at Kisese II

Kisese II (KSE2) is a painted rockshelter that is unusual for its deeply stratified artifact- and fossil-rich Late Pleistocene to Holocene deposits, located in the Kondoa Rock-Art UNESCO World Heritage Center of northern Tanzania. KSE2 was excavated by Louis and Mary Leakey in 1951 and by Ray Inskeep in 1956, but the results were published only as preliminary notes. We have used recently recovered archives to guide new analyses, including 16 new AMS 14C dates for chronological control, showing that the sequence spans the last 50 ka. The KSE2 record is rich in ochre, contains thousands of ostrich eggshell beads, lithic artifacts, diverse and well-preserved fossil fauna, and 6 human burials. Unlike other East African sites, lithic technological changes are preceded by those in social domains such as the use of colorants and ostrich eggshell beads, both in use by 37 ka.

This project aims to expand these initial results by focusing on the fossil fauna using combined zooarchaeological, taxonomic, ecometric, and isotopic approaches to understand changes in the environment, ecology, and foraging practices across multiple Late Pleistocene-Holocene human technological and behavioral shifts.

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Grantee Spotlight: Laurence Dumouchel

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Laurence Dumouchel is a PhD candidate from George Washington University. She was awarded a Leakey Foundation research grant in the spring of 2016 for her project entitled “The environments of the earliest obligate biped, Australopithecus anamensis.” Here we have a summary of her work. 

Laurence Dumouchel

Bipedal locomotion is used as one of the primary criteria to select the taxa that are included in the human clade (‘hominins’). Features of the fossil remains of Australopithecus anamensis suggest that its knee was habitually directly above the foot, thus this species is possibly the earliest hominin known.

Despite the importance of Au. anamensis for understanding the origins of human bipedality, the species’ environmental context is poorly understood. Thus, the aim of my project is to investigate the paleoenvironments of Australopithecus anamensis.

100_2171The majority of Au. anamensis fossils are from 4-million-year-old sites in East Africa, such as Mursi (Ethiopia), Allia Bay (Kenya) and Kanapoi (Kenya). Although Au. anamensis probably occurred throughout the region at that time, the majority of the fossils attributed to this species have been found at Kanapoi (~70%), some have been discovered at Allia Bay (~30%) and none have been found so far at Mursi. The research question addressed by this proposal hinges on the relationship between hominin abundance and ecology. What were the paleoenvironments of Australopithecus anamensis in the Omo-Turkana Basin and how did they vary among the three sites? In other words, did the paleoenvironments differ at the two known Au. anamensis sites, and did they differ from the paleoenvironment at Mursi?

The answer to these questions will impact the scientific community’s understanding of the emergence and maintenance of obligate bipedal locomotion, a feature unique to the clade formed by humans and their closest relatives among primates.