Datation radiocarbone directe et attribution culturelle des vestiges humains paléolithiques de la grotte d'Isturitz (Pyrénées-Atlantiques).

Abstract : This paper presents new AMS radiocarbon dates made on three human bones curated at the MAN (Saint-Germain-en-Laye) and coming from the Saint-Périer excavation in the Isturitz cave. This cave, located in the foothills of the western Pyrenees, is a major site of the Franco-Cantabrian region. It is well-known for having yielded a major Paleolithic sequence with rich Magdalenian levels indicating a long and intense occupation by human groups during the Upper Paleolithic. The cave is divided into two main chambers: the Isturitz chamber (or Great Chamber) and the Saint-Martin chamber (fig. 1). Research was conducted in Isturitz by E. Passemard between 1912 and 1923, by R and S. de Saint-Périer between 1928 and 1948 (Passemard, 1924, 1944; Saint-Périer, 1930, 1936; Saint-Périer and Saint-Périer, 1952), and by C. Normand and others since 1999. The excavations of E. Passemard and R. and S. de Saint-Périer yielded an important assemblage of human remains from both adult and immature individuals. The cultural attribution of these bones is problematic, especially because of the complexity of the stratigraphy and the ancient date of the excavations (fig. 2); and although the bones come from different levels of the sequence discovered in the cave, they are usually attributed to the Magdalenian (Gambier, 1990-1991). More than 80% of this assemblage is made of fragmented elements of the skull and mandible; intentional modifications indicate a processing of corpses linked to either funerary or ritual, warlike practices (defleshing, disarticulation, intentional breakage, sometimes shaping and engraving of the bones: Gambier, 1990-1991). While fragmentation limits the interest of these remains as regards the study of skeletal morphology, the intentional modifications of the bones give them a major interest for the understanding of the mortuary behavior of the Upper Paleolithic populations. Three samples (fig. 3) were selected among the human remains found in the Great Chamber by R. and S. de Saint-Périer. Two are from layer II (Middle Magdalenian) and one is from layer III (upper Gravettian layer). They include: IST II - 23 -1937, a fragment (5.5 cm x 6.4 cm) of an adult parietal; IST II - 41 -1933, a fragment (7.5 cm x 6.5 cm) of an adult frontal; and IST III-53-1937, a fragment of an adult parietal (6.7 cm x 6.0 cm). These three fragments belong to three different adults. The bones were photographed and analyzed prior to sampling. Sampling was done in areas without glue, consolidants, varnish or ink. They were submitted for AMS 14C dating at Groningen (Center for Isotope Research, Groningen University). The results indicate that the two bones 45328 IST II - 23 - 1937 and 45332 IST III - 53 -1937 are dated respectively in the range of 18461-17652 and 18043-17540 cal BP, corresponding to the Middle Magdalenian. The third, 45329 Isturitz II - 41 - 1933, is associated with a range of 16351-15174 cal BP, contemporary of the Upper Magdalenian. The date obtained on the sample from layer III confirms the hypothesis of contamination of layer III, top of the Gravettian, by layer II, Middle Magdalenian. The assumption of the majority of human remains pertaining to the Middle Magdalenian is therefore admissible. The date obtained for the third sample is problematic because it takes place in an interval corresponding to the Upper Magdalenian: it is close to the AMS date obtained on a fragment of antler barbed point ("harpoon head") from layer F1 (fig. 4: 13,095 ± 55 BP or 16441-15223 cal BP; Szmidt et al., 2009). Like the others, this bone sample had intentional modifications, and therefore the date should have been expected to integrate the interval corresponding to the Middle Magdalenian. Therefore, either the reliability of that date is uncertain - but no argument support this hypothesis - or the processing of the corpse and head in the Upper Magdalenian is, if not identical in any case, at least similar to that attested in the Middle Magdalenian. Isolated human bones with intentional changes also exist in the Upper Magdalenian (Gambier, 1996) so this hypothesis cannot be ruled out. However, in the Great Chamber of Isturitz, the transition between Middle and Upper Magdalenian is visible in many categories of archeological objects and fields of activity (flint and antler equipment, game hunted, ornaments and art: Pétillon, 2004, 2006; Langlais, 2010; Laroulandie in Pétillon et al., à paraître). These differences argue for profound changes in human behavior at the Middle-Upper Magdalenian transition. If the date on human bone is reliable, it would mean that the mortuary behavior remains, at least in part, beyond these transformations. Other dates are necessary to further the discussion and the dating program on human bones should be continued. Still, the assumption of the majority of human remains at Isturitz pertaining to the Middle Magdalenian is reinforced by these new dates.
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Dominique Gambier, Christian Normand, Jean-Marc Pétillon. Datation radiocarbone directe et attribution culturelle des vestiges humains paléolithiques de la grotte d'Isturitz (Pyrénées-Atlantiques).. Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française, Société Préhistorique Française, 2013, 110 (4), pp.645-656. ⟨halshs-00913161⟩

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