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Images from inside Grotte de Cussac in Dordogne, France, showing the cave art and the ancient human remains found within the cave, and of the research team at work.

Grotte de Cussac And The Mystery Of The Cave Bear Nest Burials

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A remarkable cave in France is revealing secrets about early human ritual practices and burial traditions. Grotte de Cussac cave is located in Dordogne, in southwest France, set between the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees mountains . This entire region is known for its abundance of prehistoric cave paintings found mainly in the Vézère Valley, including the super famous Lascaux Cave paintings . However, unlike previously examined caves, the Grotte de Cussac cave has more than 800 stylized engravings of animal and human forms that were created between 25,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Probing The Cavernous Time Portal

For a decade an archaeological research team has been exploring the Grotte de Cussac cave, gathering evidence about the lives, customs and beliefs of the people of that time, and the project is detailed in a new paper published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America ( PNAS).

Human remains in the Grotte de Cussac cave. (University of Wollongong)

Human remains in the Grotte de Cussac cave. ( University of Wollongong )

The International team of researchers was led by Professor Jacques Jaubert of the University of Bordeaux, and in the paper the professor says the cave “contains the remains of at least six humans, dated to the same period around 25,000 and 30,000 years ago. And what these incredibly rare discoveries represent is the “only known example of human remains interred so deep within a cave that also contains artworks.”

Probing The Poisonous Ancient Gateway To The Afterlife

Dr. Eline Schotsmans is a Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong and the University of Bordeaux and she said that in addition to the usual challenges involved in piecing together the ancient past from its archaeological remains, “the Grotte de Cussac project presented the researchers with a number of other obstacles,” according to a press release published by University of Wollongong

Entrance to the Grotte de Cussac cave in Dordogne, France (Padawane/ CC BY-SA 2.5)

Entrance to the Grotte de Cussac cave in Dordogne, France (Padawane/ CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Among these unique challenges, all research at the cave must be conducted on site as no excavations are permitted, and nothing can be moved, or removed, from the cave. And to assure the ancient remains are protected, the French Ministry of Culture has classified the cave as a National Heritage Site and has restricted access to it. Moreover, high carbon dioxide levels are measured inside the cave at certain times of the year and it is only accessible, safely, for three months each year.

Protection, Protection, Protection: The Three Golden Rules

Dr. Schotsmans said, “It is all about protecting the cave,” and that the archaeologists had to wear sterilized protective suits and gumboots to prevent even a spec of sediment from outside entering the ancient time capsule. The fear is that any foreign microorganism, or fungus, introduced to the almost hermetically sealed environment might have a negative influence on the conservation of the cave, including the surface of the cave which is called “the original paleo surface,” by Dr. Schotsmans.

Engravings from Cussac Cave near Lascaux in France. (N. Aujoulat, Centre National de Préhistoire / University of Wollongong)

Engravings from Cussac Cave near Lascaux in France. ( N. Aujoulat, Centre National de Préhistoire / University of Wollongong )

What is essentially being protected are the exceptionally rare human remains that are located at three locations within the cave, which the archaeologists say were deliberately placed in former bear hibernation nests long after bears stopped using the cave. This clearly ritualistic practice from 25,000 and 30,000 years ago has never been documented before.

The paper says the bodies had been arranged in “a particular way,” and that the cave dwelling community moved the bodies after death and the remains of different people were intermingled. Dr. Schotsmans said a society's funerary rites and its beliefs and practices regarding the death event, and the relationship between the dead and the living, tells the team a lot about those people. The research team’s goal is “to reconstruct the attitudes of ancient populations towards death by focusing on the study of the human skeleton and the management and treatment of the corpse.”

What Was So Special About These Six People?

The use of red ochre in the ancient Cussac Cave burials demonstrate symbolic behavior in deep-prehistory and so does the otherworldly cave art. In addition to these ritualistic aspects of the burials in most of the studied depositions, “no crania were present but teeth were,” indicating the crania were deliberately taken, which is thought to have been an act of “looking after the deceased.”

However, even with all these answers a set of more complex questions has arisen. The answers to these new questions will offer what the paper describes as a “window onto the complex social landscape of our ancient ancestors.” These questions include: Why were only these six individuals buried in the Grotte de Cussac cave? And why had only teenagers and adults been buried, but no children? And perhaps the biggest question: W here on earth is everyone else that died around the cave 25,000 and 30,000 years ago?

So, what do you think might have been so special about these six people?

Top image: Images from inside Grotte de Cussac in Dordogne, France, showing the cave art and the ancient human remains found within the cave, and of the research team at work.

Source: N. Aujoulat, Centre National de Préhistoire, French Ministry of Culture; Got, Université de Bordeaux / PCR Cussac, French Ministry of Culture; V. Feruglio, PCR Cussac, French Ministry of Culture / University of Wollongong

By Ashley Cowie

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