Ancient River Camps Are Oldest Proof of Humans in Paris

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
July 7, 2008
Hunter-gatherers who made temporary camps along the Seine about 9,500 years ago were among the earliest "residents" of what is now Paris, archaeologists say.

A recent dig near the river revealed thousands of arrowhead bits and animal bones from about 7600 B.C. that scientists say are the oldest evidence of human occupation within modern city boundaries.

Previously the oldest such evidence was a 4500 B.C. fishing village near the current Gare de Lyon railway station.

Nomadic tribes camped at the newfound site for periods of days or even weeks while they collected flint to make arrowheads for hunting, the dig team believes.

"It was a strategic choice, next to the river," said Bénédicte Souffi, a lead archaeologist on the dig.

Chris Scarre, a French prehistory expert from Durham University in the U.K., said the hunter-gatherers may also have used the river "for transport and for fishing as well, of course, as a ready supply of fresh water."

Although there is no evidence of ancient river transport at the site, dugout canoes from the same time period have been found in other parts of Europe, said Scarre, who was not involved with the Paris project.

Ancient Landscape

The dig site lies on the southwest edge of the French capital, sandwiched between the Parisian beltway and the city's helicopter port.

It covers an area about the size of a U.S. football field.

The French government's archaeology agency Inrap commissioned a survey of the site in preparation for building a recycling plant.

(Related: "Rome Subway Digs Reveal Medieval, Renaissance Treasures" [March 10, 2008].)

Today the area is about 820 feet (250 meters) from the Seine, but ten thousand years ago the river was probably much closer. The camps may even have been established on an island within the river.

"The likely original appearance of the River Seine, and most other major European rivers before they were embanked and controlled, would have been a braided form [with multiple channels] fringed by marshy wetlands," Scarre said.

Ancient people would have hunted mammals, such as deer and wild boar, using bows and arrows rather than spears, scholars say.

"Forest-dwelling animals may have come to the water's edge to drink, making this a good place for hunting," Scarre noted.

Preserved in Sludge

Since February 2008, Souffi and her colleagues have unearthed debris from multiple hunter-gatherer campsites, all dating to the Mesolithic period—9000 to 5000 B.C.

Researchers also uncovered larger tools made from sandstone. These include a spherical hand-held "pounder" and long blades possibly used for making arrow shafts or scraping animal skins.

"We also discovered a hearth, which could have been used for dissolving adhesive for arrowheads or for cooking game," Souffi said.

Frequent flooding of the Seine had washed layers of silt over the artifacts, sealing them in and helping to preserve them.

Finds of younger polished axes and decorated pottery indicate that the site continued to be used through the ages.

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