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17 May 2012
Upper Palaeolithic revealed at Mas d'Azil cave

Mas d'Azil is an immense cave, and one of the major prehistoric sites in France. The first research was carried out in 1860, with Felix Garrigou presenting the general stratigraphy in 1867. Edouard Piette conducted extensive excavations from 1887-1889, recovering thousands of flint tools and hundreds of portable art objects.
     It was Piette who defined the Azilian culture. Between the Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic (10,000 to 7,500 BP), this Epi-palaeolithic culture was characterised by red deer antler harpoons with an elongated perforation at the base, very short end-scrapers, and more or less geometric projectile elements. Art is represented by painted or engraved pebbles.
     In 1901-1902, Henri Breuil defined the chronology of the later Magdalenian culture based on his excavations, and discovered the first parietal art works in the cave (bison, horse, feline, fish, etc.). From 1935 to 1942, Marthe and Saint-Just Pequart excavated the deep gallery, revealing one of the rare "occupations in an obscure cave", in which a few masterpieces of Magdalenian art were found: spear throwers, pierced batons, contour cut-outs, etc. Between 1936 and 1958, Joseph Mandement discovered numerous previously unknown cavities.
     Since this time, little research has been conducted, but recent archaeology carried out on the site of the future visitor centre has revealed a long stratigraphical sequence, several metres deep, including sand and pebble layers deposited by the Arize River during ancient floods contemporary with the last Quaternary glaciation. Until now, evidence of this flooding had never been seen at Mas d'Azil.
     Study is still in progress, but the first carbon-14 dates reveal a tentative chronology. Most of the earliest occupation, found beneath the flood layers, are attributed to the Aurignacian culture (35,000-33,000 BP). It had been thought that Aurignacian peoples did not live deep in caves. The Magdalenian culture (14,700 BP) arrived after the flooding.

Edited from Past Horizons (15 May 2012)

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