La Cotte de St Brelade

La Cotte de St Brelade

La Cotte de St Brelade is a Paleolithic site of early habitation in St Brelade, Jersey. "Cotte" means "cave" in Jèrriais; the cave is also known as "Lé Creux ès Fées". ["Dictionnaire Jersiais-Français", Le Maistre 1966]

Neanderthal man once lived here around 250,000 years ago - the earliest record we have of the occupation of the Channel Islands by an intelligent species.

At that time, with sea levels slightly below those at present, Jersey was part of Normandy, a peninsula jutting out from the coast. It was not until after the last Ice Age that the sea eroded the coastline, separating first Guernsey, then Jersey and finally the Ecréhous from the mainland.

Neanderthal Man

Recent DNA evidence (1997) suggests that the Neanderthals were not related to ourselves, but shared a common ancestor around 600,000 years ago. The evidence would seem to suggest that at some point one part of the ancestral line moved to Northern Europe, adapting to local conditions, becoming what we term the "Neanderthals" (after bones first discovered in the Neander valley).

For some reason, this population remained apart from and distinct from the other line, evolving differently. The rapid (in evolutionary terms) divergence of small separated populations to survive in different conditions is well argued by Stephen Jay Gould inter alia, and accordingly one would then expect, as seems to be the case, a period of relative stasis afterwards.

Steven Mithen has proposed that the characteristic that distinguishes modern humans from Neanderthals is an extended period of infancy and childhood, allowing for greater growth in intellectual abilities. It is known [Jay Gould] , that this retention of infantile characteristics, known as neoteny, marks a major difference between humans and apes, and is reflected in an exceptionally greater life span than would be expected statistically. The existing evidence suggests that the maximum life expectancy of Neanderthals was probably late 30s to early 40s or perhaps younger, while for Homo sapiens at the time it was perhaps around 50 years.

Around 40,000 to 30,000 years ago, the Neanderthals in Europe were replaced by the ancestors of modern man. No one knows for sure how or why they died out, although an interesting imaginative reconstruction was given by H.G. Wells in his short paper - "The Grisly Folk".

Making fire

Remains of fire was found in La Cotte. Recent research suggests how this was done.

In "Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization", Woolley and Hawkes describe fire making very clearly:

"There are two principal ways of making fire, though each has many variants. One consists in making sparks by percussion, the other in friction between two wooden surfaces, creating a fine wood dust that finally kindles enough to light the tinder. The only solid evidence of fire-making in Palaeolithic or Mesolithic times is for the first method, some cave-dwellers having made a strike-a-light from flint and a lump of iron pyrites. The friction methods include the fire-plough in which a piece of hard wood is rubbed to and fro in a furrow in softer wood, the rather similar fire-saw in which a sharp-edged stick such as bamboo is sawed across a slit, and the fire-drill where a hard pointed stick is rotated in a socket. The drill may be twirled between the palms but is made much more effective if rotated by means of a thong, cord or bow-string looped round it. It seems certain that one or more of these techniques would have been perfected before the end of the Mesolithic period. Here is an invention likely to have been made independently in different regions, always with variations determined by the nature of the woods available."

That flint was the major source of fire making equipment, rather than friction, is confirmed by the recent work done by D. Stapert and L. Johansen. They used experimental archaeology to look at fire making techniques.

They looked at flint implements with rounded ends, excavated at several Late Palaeolithic sites in Denmark and the Netherlands, and suggested that these could be best described and interpreted as strike-a-lights used in combination with pyrites.

Experiments were carried out; and it was found that the use-wear traces on the experimental pieces were similar to those occurring on the prehistoric specimens.

They concluded that the pyrite technique for fire production most probably predated wood-on-wood techniques, both in Europe and Greenland. This makes sparks, but how is fire actually generated from these?

To understand this, in his essay "Making Fire with Flint & Steel", J. Gottfred actually tried this, and comments:

"Many survival or scouting books give different instructions on how one can start a fire with flint and steel. These books suggest various materials that are supposed to catch the spark. I have tried many of them, and I can attest that the people who wrote those books had obviously never tried it! I tried all of the following materials without success : punk (the powdery dry rot from the insides of fallen logs), cottonwood fluff, fine dry grass, fine wood shavings, dry moss, and various lichens. None of these materials worked, although they all made excellent small kindling once I gave up and used a match."

He then looked at the idea of the "tinder box". Tinder is "a flammable substance used to kindle a fire, especially charred linen", and this he used with great success. Using this, he found that in windy weather it is easier to start a fire with flint and steel than it is to use a match, in fact any wind fans the nascent fire.

But what if there is no cloth? He commented that "I have had success using the remains of the previous evening's fire by using my knife to cut down to the deep charred layer of a partly-burned log. Such a layer will catch and hold sparks, although not as easily as with charred cloth."

So present research suggests that the men who lived in La Cotte de St Brelade used some of the flints at their disposal for fire making. Once a fire had been established, the remnants of the fire made future fires far easier.


Excavations have taken place from around 1910 onwards.

Robert R. Marett (1866 - 1943) worked on the palaeolithic site from 1910 - 1914, recovering some hominid teeth and other remains of habitation by Neanderthal man. He published "The Site, Fauna, and Industry of La Cotte de St. Brelade, Jersey" (Archaeologia LXVII, 1916).

In 1911, Arthur Smith Woodward (director of the geology department at the British Museum of Natural History) was asked by R.R. Marrett to inspected the findings at La Cotte. At the time, Woodward was engaged in the archaeological discovery of "Piltdown man", which later became notorious as a hoax, and he used a comparison of findings at La Cotte to argue for an early dating of his Piltdown material.

The Cambridge University excavations of the 1960s and 1970s found important examples of remains of Pleistocene mammals carried into La Cotte, including a pile of bones and teeth of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. Prince Charles took part (as a student) in these excavations, directed by Professor C.M.B. McBurney, which were later published.

Katharine Scott, in 1980, published an article on the hunting methods used by Neanderthals at La Cotte in which she explains how they stampeded and drove the mammoths off the nearby cliffs.


*Balleine's History of Jersey
*The Mystery of the Cave, Sonia Hilsdon
*The Grisly Folk, H.G. Wells
*"La Cotte de St. Brelade 1961 - 1978: Excavations by C.B.M. McBurney." (Geo Books, Norwich).
*"Two hunting episodes of Middle Paleolithic Age at La Cotte Saint-Brelade, Jersey (Channel Islands)" (World Archeology 12:137-152. )
*"Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization. Volume: 1". by Jacquetta Hawkes - author, Leonard Woolley - author. (1963), p140.
*"Making fire in the Stone Age: flint and pyrite" published in "Geologie en Mijnbouw" ,1999, vol. 78, no. 2, pp. 147-164(18) by Stapert D [1] .; Johansen L. [2] / [1] Groningen Institute of Archaeology, Poststraat 6, 9712 ER Groningen, the Netherlands [2] Institut for Arkæologi og Etnologi, Vandkunsten 5, 1167 København K, Denmark

External links

* [ Article by Ron Wilcox, Outline of British Archaeology]

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