Lazaret Cave (Grotte du Lazaret) is a pre-Neandertal cave occupation site located on the French Mediterranean coast in Nice (Alpes-Maritimes) on the western slope of Mount Boron. This karstic cave is extremely large, measuring 40 meters long by 15 meters wide with a ceiling 15 meters high. Excavations conducted by François Octobon and Henry de Lumley have produced a rich archaeological assemblage as well as 10 fragmentary hominid specimens. The archaeological material derives from stratigraphic complex C and is subdivided into three main units, which are further subdivided into distinct archaeological stratigraphic units. Combined uranium/thorium (U/Th) and electron spin resonance (ESR) dating of faunal materials associated with the complex C layers indicate a late Riss occupation corresponding to Oxygen Isotope Stage 6 (OIS 6). The site is notable for its evidence for the existence of structures built inside the cave by its occupants.
The hominid material from the site is limited to very fragmentary remains and isolated teeth provisionally typed to pre-Neandertals by Marie-Antoinette de Lumley, a conclusion borne out by subsequent dating. The most significant hominid material from Lazaret is a complete parietal belonging to a juvenile who was approximately 9 years of age. This individual shows pathological development and vault thinning that were likely due to a bone infection, resulting in death; alternatively, the pathology has been described as the result of a tumor pushing the meninges into the parietal, resulting in bone resorption.
The archaeological and faunal material from the site reflects long-term occupation by pre-Neandertals. Units C1 and CII contain Acheulean lithic assemblages with a large makeup of bifaces. U/Th and ESR dates from red deer enamel indicate an age of approximately 170,000 (± 20,000) years for Unit CII. Unit CIII contains a Mousterian lithic assemblage derived from the Acheulean with many flake tools lacking bifaces, and U/Th and ESR dates from red deer enamel indicate an age of approximately 130,000 (± 15,000) years. These dates place Lazaret squarely in the pre-Wurm OIS 6 stage. Taphonomic analysis of the faunal material recovered indicates alternating stages of habitation between humans and carnivores, primarily wolves (Canis lupus).
Prey species recovered from the site are predominantly goats (Capra ibex) and red deer (Cervus elephus), with limited equid and bovid material. The age/death profiles of the goats and deer are indicative of selective hunting, and bone modifications associated with all stages of carcass processing are present. The equid and bovid remains are represented by only some parts of the skeleton lacking any carnivore gnawing marks, supporting the contention of selective transport of specific parts of these larger animals, whereas the entire carcasses of smaller prey mammals were transported to the site. Although the presence of some gnawed bones and coprolites indicates carnivore occupation of the cave, the majority of the prey fauna collection and transportation can be confidently ascribed to the hominid occupants.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Lazaret site is the construction of a wall or hut within the cave, presumably used either to separate an intensely used portion from the rest of the large cave or to create shelter from weather. Features thought to be post-holes surrounded by rock features are indicative of the construction of these huts or walls within the cave. On the basis of the distribution of archaeological material, de Lumley argued for the presence of entrances and internal compartments constructed via these walls. Tiny seashells that may have been brought into the site attached to seaweed, as well as mammalian foot bones (presumably attached to hides), are found within the smaller compartments surrounding a hearth, and de Lumley presented this material as evidence for bedding.
Although the most complex behaviors arguably present at the site are primarily speculative, the presence of some sort of structure within the cave is well established. The long-term occupation of the site and its use as a central place to process carcasses procured via selective hunting are also well established, marking Lazaret as an important site for understanding the lifeways of pre-Neandertals within the Middle Paleolithic.
- de Lumley, H. (1969). Une Cabane Acheuléenne dans la Grotte du Lazaret (Nice) [An Acheulean hut in Lazaret Cave]. Mémoires de la Société Préhistorique Française, 7.
- de Lumley, H. (1976). Grotte du Lazaret. In Sites paléolithiques de la région de Nice et grottes de Grimaldi (9th UISPP meeting, pp. 53-75). Nice, France: Union Internationale des Sciences Pré et Protohistoriques.
- Valensi, P. (2000). The archaeozoology of Lazaret Cave (Nice, France). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 10, 357-367.