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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 61/May 1902/An Afternoon at Chelles and the Earliest Evidences of Human Industry in France

By Professor A. S. PACKARD, LL.D.,


THE earliest traces of human occupation in France and on the European continent occur at Chelles, near Paris. We have said the oldest on the continent, for apparently still older flint implements occur in England. We refer to the so-called 'Eoliths' or plateau implements, found by Harrison, Prestwich and others in southern England.

The Chellean flint axes are still taken out of a bed of preglacial gravel in the sand pits of Chelles resting directly on the Eocene Tertiary clays. This deposit is overlaid by later paleolithic beds, containing worked flints of the age of the earlier cave-dwellers of Le Moustier, in the Dordogne, and called the Moustierian epoch. Directly above this layer, just below the surface of the soil, occur polished stone axes of the later or recent (Neolithic) Stone Age, and other remains of human industry of the time of the Swiss lake-dwellers, while in the swamps and loam are occasionally found Gallo-Roman antiquities, such as Gallic coins, serpentine axes, and bronzes of the time of the Antonines.

Relics of the French who immediately succeeded the Romans in France are also occasionally dug up. Clovis I. and Clovis II. built villas here, and the site of one of them still preserves the name of 'the royal palace/ The queens of these two Merovingian kings, Ste. Clotilde and Ste. Bathilde, founded a monastery near the royal villa.

Thus a single glance at the walls of the gravel pits near the town shows the successive steps in the history of the region—the different stages in Paleolithic times, as well as the Neolithic or recent Stone Age; so that here are revealed, as perhaps nowhere else so clearly, the overlap of prehistoric on historic times.

It is to be observed that the relics or traces of human occupation also occur in geological strata or beds of definite age, not in caves of somewhat uncertain age, and they are associated with the bones and teeth of quadrupeds, such as the elephant, rhinoceros, horse, deer, the cave bear, etc., all of extinct species.

Hence a visit to this classical locality on a serene though hot July afternoon, in a most attractive region and in most delightful company, was both interesting and memorable.

The pleasant town of Chelles with its outlying villas, gardens and modest parks lies on the north bank of the Marne about twelve miles east of Paris. It is built on the southern slope of a low eminence, with a southern exposure.

Alighting from the train, and accompanied by Professor Paul Bar* bier, we drove to the house of the Abbé Alfred Bonno, to whom we had been referred as distinguished by his knowledge of the prehistoric archeology of Chelles and its neighborhood. We were most cordially met by the Abbé, and before accompanying us to the quarries he invited us to examine the large collection of prehistoric remains which was stored in the attic of his house. It comprised very full series of stone implements from the bottom to the top of the paleolithic, including

PSM V61 D088 The sand pits near chelles.png

The Sand-pits near Chelles.

not only the Chellean and Acheulean, but also those of Moustierian age, up to the Magdalenian subdivisions, with some Solutrian lance-points. There were also numerous polished stone axes taken from the loam about the town, as well as Gallo-Roman bronze spear-heads, and finally iron weapons of war, as Chelles was once the center of the Merovingian kingdom. There were also fine knives of flint dug up from the gravels of the Fontainebleau forest. An examination, even if a hasty one, of such a rich local collection was the best possible preparation for our visit to the quarries.

We then drove to the neighborhood of the sand pits, walking to them from the end of the road, through the fields and by a shaded path, until we came out into an open space to the edge of the pits.

The accompanying figure gives a clear idea of the sequence of beds drawn from a photograph which we owe to the kindness of the Abbé Bonno.

These gravel quarries are excavated in the Pleistocene or Quaternary gravels and are situated on a plain between 125 and 140 feet in height

PSM V61 D089 Prehistoric flints at chelles.png

The Beds at Chelles, containing Prehistoric Flints, Etc.

above the sea, extending from Chelles eastward to the neighboring village of Brou. The strata underlying the fresh water or river-gravels are greenish clays or marls of marine origin and of Eocene Tertiary age. This marl contains gypsum or plaster of Paris, with crystals of selenite, besides bones and teeth of the Eocene deer-like Anoplotherium, and of Dinotherium, an early forerunner of the elephant.

Upon this lower Tertiary marine bed rest the fresh water Quaternary beds, the series beginning with the lowest Pleistocene beds, passing through beds of supposed glacial origin containing transported pebbles, up into postglacial strata containing Neolithic implements.

The transition from the Tertiary formation is sudden. When the lowest Quaternary beds were deposited, the Eocene marl beds had been elevated, become dry land and exposed to the erosive action of the winds and rains. A long interval passed between the time of deposition of the Tertiary beds and the Pleistocene deposits which now cap them. It is to be observed that the later Tertiary formations (Oligocene, Miocene and Pliocene) are absent.

The Quaternary deposits at Chelles are divided into four distinct fresh water beds, each differing in age and in their materials, and as exposed by the workmen the whole series appears to be about 25 to 30 feet in thickness. They are as follows:

D, E. The lowest bed, that directly overlying the Eocene marl, consists of rolled pebbles and grayish sand, the mass being often cemented by calcareous infiltrations. This bed contains the Chellean implements. (What is apparently an upper division of this bed (D) is what the Abbé Bonno calls the Acheulean, and from it have been taken axes like those found at St. Acheul near Amiens.) In this lowest bed also occur the remains of Elephas antiquus, Rhinoceros merckii, etc.

C. A deposit, not forming a continuous bed, and only seen in places, of water worn coarse gravel and small pebbles derived from Tertiary gravels, and called by Bonno ’sables moyens.’ This is the red drift, ’diluvium rouge,’ of Ameghino. It abounds in rolled, broken, sometimes entire, Tertiary marine shells which have been brought by freshwater streams probably from Lizy-sur-Ourcq and from Etrépilly a few miles to the northeastward, or perhaps from Soissons to the north (Bonno).

B. A second layer of drift or rolled and transported gravel, containing flint implements of the Moustierian epoch, and bones of the mammoth.

A. A thin bed of gray clay of the age of the Swiss Lake-dwellers, in which occur polished stone axes.

The chief center of interest is of course the lowest bed (D, E), that containing the worked flints. These are the celebrated Chellean axes, which are of various sizes, no two exactly alike, which were worked out by chipping from flint nodules, the flint being derived from the chalk deposits. These crude weapons were probably used in the chase or in battle, and were not mounted, but held in the hand. Almond-shaped, in the form of a 'coup de poing,' they were worked on both sides or faces, showing a set of primary and secondary drippings or flakings. Their edges are sharp, not water-worn, and, as Ameghino states, they were evidently shaped by the early paleolithic workmen on the bed where they occur. Probably several hundred of these axes have been taken from these pits. Ameghino states that he possessed over a hundred of them.

With these axes sometimes occur long rude flakes ('lames'), knife-like, sharp on one edge, struck off from the flint core by percussion. No skin-scrapers (racloirs and grattoirs) or rude spear-points have ever occurred in these beds. No human bones or teeth have ever been found in these deposits, either here or at St. Acheul, and apparently nowhere else, unless we except the human molars claimed by Nehring to be of Chellean type. These are two very large molar teeth resembling in some respects those of the chimpanzee and found in the mid-Pleistocene drift of Taubach near Weimar.

At all events man as man lived here, and what manner of beasts were his contemporaries? They were in nearly every case representatives of species now extinct. Bones and teeth of the straight-tusked elephant (Elephas antiquus) and of the megarhine or big-nosed rhinoceros, are not infrequent; we obtained fragments from the workmen, and picked up some in the debris at the bottom of the pit.

The remains of other mammals are less common. Ameghino enumerates besides those mentioned, the bones and teeth of the hippopotamus, of a beaver-like rodent (Trogontherium, also found in the preglacial beds of St. Prest, Durfort, etc.), of an ox, of a horse (perhaps Equus sienonis), and an extinct deer different from the reindeer. This deer is probably the same as Cervus belgrandi found in beds of the same age and nature at Montreuil, where its bones are associated with the straight-tusked elephant (E. antiquus) and Rhinoceros merckii. Ameghino also found at Chelles two canine teeth of the cave bear. As to the numerous molars of the horse (we found two) Ameghino states that they differ from those of the modern horse (Equus caballus) frequently occurring in the later Quaternary and are allied to the Tertiary species called Equus stenonis. Since the date when his paper appeared Steno's horse has been referred to the lower Pleistocene, a time of transition to the Pliocene Tertiary, and most probably, according to Osborn, represented by the forest beds of Norfolk, England, and the equivalent beds of St. Prest, Durfort, and other localities in France. In fresh-water beds of this horizon occur also remains of the cave-bear, cave-hyaena, saber-toothed tiger, musk ox, Hippopotamus, Rhinoceros etruscus, Trogontherium cuvieri, of an otter, and of two species of elephant, Elephas meridionalis, supposed to have been the ancestor of the mammoth (E. primigenius) and Elephas antiquus. These details may be dry enough to our readers, but they are of prime importance in relation with the question whether man originated before the Quaternary, either in France, or, as is perhaps more probable, migrated there from some Asiatic or African region in company with the hippopotamus, rhinoceros and other tropical forms which were his contemporaries.

Here might be mentioned the equivalent beds exposed in the sand-pits at Montreuil, which is nearer Paris, and just north of Vincennes. As stated by Ameghino, the deposits at this place are the same as at Chelles. The lowest beds are gray sands, without boulders, and rich in mammalian bones. Above lies a bed of large rounded pebbles, but it is sterile, or destitute of any but mere fragments; directly above is a bed of sand, this being capped by the red drift with boulders. The lowest beds present the same traces of denudation and of ancient erosion as observed in the corresponding beds at Chelles. No Chellean axes have been found at this quarry, at least the workmen were unacquainted with them, but Ameghino himself found in the lowest or preglacial bed two flint flakes, with a very pronounced bulb of percussion (’concoide’) which prove the former presence of man.

In the third bed (B), i.e., that lying beneath, occur the true Moustierian implements which are entirely different in shape from the Chellean axe, being broadly triangular or pointed in outline, and only worked on one face, being flat on one side and convex on the other. In this interglacial bed occur the bones and teeth of the mammoth (Elephas primigenius) and this is the age of the cave-dwellers of the Spy or Neanderthal race, the age of the mammoth, of the Rhinoceros tichorhinus, the reindeer, musk ox, etc. With the Moustierian points occur flint knives, and also two new forms, the skin-scraper (racloir) and lance points. We see here traces of the immigration of subarctic mammals, showing that the climate was cooler than in the Chellean epoch, while the human race had either become modified, or had migrated hither from elsewhere, though these peculiar broad points do not, so far as we know, exist beyond the limits of France.

The same sequence is shown in the lowest beds at St. Acheul, near Amiens. The basal deposits, rich in Chellean almond-shaped implements contain at or below the depth of seven meters the remains of Elephas antiquus; at or below five meters Hippopotamus amphibius, while in the higher beds the straight-tusked elephant is succeeded by the mammoth, whose remains do not occur below the depth of three meters (Osborn).

Ameghino calls attention to a circumstance worthy of mention. As we have seen, flint axes of excellent workmanship occur in considerable numbers at the base of the lowest Quaternary beds lying directly upon the eroded surface of the Eocene Tertiary greenish marls. So well are these implements made that we are forced to believe that this industry extended back to a still earlier period than the age of the beds in which these axes occur, and as he says, this fact 'constitutes for me the most weighty arguments that we can invoke in favor of the existence of man during the end of the Tertiary period.' Exhibiting to the members of the Anthropological Society the flints and teeth he had found, he showed that their edges were not water-worn, and that the flint axes had been abandoned by men where they were found. "Man, then, lived on the spot, and the instruments, at least in part, have also been worked out on the same ground. What proves this is that the little nuclei, like the two I exhibit, were found in the same bed. The teeth and bones of the mammals present no trace of having been water-worn. On the other hand, as the mammalian remains and the evidences of human workmanship are found at all the horizons of this lower bed, we are obliged to conclude that man inhabited this region almost continuously, or at least with very brief interruptions."[1]

Remains of man have been discovered in Kent County, England, and in Dorset in the high-level gravels, which are certainly preglacial, as they contain remains of Elephas meridionalis in beds regarded by Lyell as 'a patch of Pliocene gravel.' These beds were afterwards referred by Prestwich to the early Pleistocene. As Prestwich states, the base-line between the Pliocene and the lowest Pleistocene is somewhat arbitrary, and the two periods in England gradually merged into each other.

These beds were afterwards referred by Prestwich, certainly the best authority then living, to the early Pleistocene. As he claimed, the base line between the Pliocene and the lowest Pleistocene is somewhat indefinite, and the two periods in England gradually merged into each other. The beds in question, namely those in Kent and Dorset counties, England, were regarded by Prestwich as the English equivalent of the St. Prest (Eure et Loire) beds, situated about fifty miles southwest of Paris, and also of the so-called Pliocene beds of the Val d'Arno in Italy. These beds, as well as those at other places in France, i.e., Durfort in Gard, and Malbattu and Peyrolles in the Auvergne (Puy-de-Dome), which also contain remains of Elephas meridionalis, are now regarded as 'transitional between Pliocene and Pleistocene with prevailing affinities on the latter side.[2] The climate of this transitional preglacial epoch, when the plateau man of Southern England chased the tropical or meridional elephant, and other beasts, such as tigers, hyaenas, rhinoceros and the hippopotamus, a mixed assemblage of Asiatic and African forms, was mild, though somewhat cooler than that of the later Pliocene. It grew colder at the end when the glacial period was ushered in.

While of course the remains of man, or his flint tools, are to be looked for in the Pliocene beds of Europe, it is still possible that he was an immigrant from southeastern Asia, and shared in the migration of animal life which reached Europe from that region at the beginning of the Quaternary or Pleistocene.

It is now generally recognized that the 'missing link' or half ape, half man creature (Pithecanthropus erectus) of Java, whose skull (calvarium), femur and three molar teeth were discovered by Dubois in beds shown by him to be of Pliocene age, was the immediate precursor of man.

In the absence of any traces of man in the Tertiary beds of Europe may he not have, geologically speaking, suddenly appeared in Western Europe in company with Elephas meridionalis?

In his 'History of the European Fauna,' Scharff states that the genus Elephas makes its first appearance in the Upper Miocene of India.

"Our European E. antiquus is, according to Professor Zittel, probably identical with E. armeniacus of Asia Minor, while E. meridionalis agrees in all essential characters with the Indian E. hysudricus. The Indian and European species of fossil elephants altogether are very closely related, and the supposition that they all have had their original homes in the Oriental region offers, I think, no serious obstacle. The view of the European origin of the mammoth especially is open to very serious objections. It does not occur in any European Pliocene deposits, and could not therefore have originated in our continent until Pleistocene times."

It may be here stated that the mammoth (Elephas primigenius) is believed to be a descendant of Elephas meridionalis.

We may, then, provisionally at least, venture to suppose that the human descendants of the Java ape-man shared in this great wave of migration of tropical beasts, birds, insects, shells, etc., which at the end of the Pliocene or beginning of the Quaternary passed by way of Asia Minor and Greece into Europe, and peopled the plains and roamed through the forest lands of western Europe.

This view is supported by the fact that after the many years of research in the upper tertiary beds of Europe, no indubitable trace of flint tools of human workmanship or any other traces of human occupation have yet been discovered, while thousands of them, we speak within bounds, have been taken from the preglacial gravel beds of France and of England, which lie next above the Tertiary strata.

  1. 'Sur le gisement de Chelles,' Bulletins de la Société d'Anthropologie (3), iv., 1881, pp. 96-101.
  2. H. F. Osborn, 'Correlation between Tertiary Mammal Horizons of Europe and America,' Annals New York Academy of Sciences, xiii., 1900, pp. 1-72.