We all occupy a world in which particular places remain important to individuals and societies for thousands of years. The world around these places may alter beyond all recognition, but certain places seem to demand both our attention and physical return for generations.
In research we recently published, we suggest that this cultural phenomenon is not unique to modern humans. From at least a quarter of a million years ago, Neanderthal populations can be seen to have persistently and deliberately returned to particular places over tens of thousands of years. This is despite radical climate-driven changes in environment and landscapes.
Our study focused on one such site: La Cotte de St Brelade in Jersey in the Channel Islands. This cave and ravine system is on a granite headland on the modern coast and was repeatedly occupied by Neanderthals between 240,000 and 40,000 years ago. It provides lots of evidence for repeated visits to the site. This includes hundreds of thousands of stone tools and butchered animal bone.
At times, visits to La Cotte were short but frequent – stopovers by groups moving around a wide area and bringing their tools with them. In other periods visits were longer, though less frequent, with Neanderthals sourcing material from the local area to produce tools.
Decoding the behaviours taking places during each occupation and reading this record against changing sea level, climate and vegetation, gives us vivid glimpse of how early Neanderthals explored, knew and mapped their world. What we see looks remarkably deliberate and responsive to changes in the world around these Neanderthal groups.
During the 200,000 years Neanderthals were using La Cotte, sea levels were often lower than they are today – sometimes radically so. In cool periods they travelled to the site over lightly wooded and open landscapes now submerged beneath the English Channel, a landscape we call La Manche.