The Aurignacian is an early Upper Paleolithic, or Late Stone Age, culture dating to between 34,000 and 27,000 years before the present (BP). Aurignacian artifacts have long been considered representative of the culture of the first anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) to migrate into continental Europe. This is currently an issue of intense debate, as some archaeologists argue that Aurignacian artifacts may actually be the result of acculturation whereby migrating populations of anatomically modern humans were interacting with indigenous Neandertal populations and producing what archaeologists recognize as the Aurignacian culture.
Aurignacian artifacts consist mainly of stone and bone tools and reflect the technological capacity to produce parallel-sided stone blades and the ability to transform organic materials into tools. The average Aurignacian stone artifact assemblage includes a variety of tools, like burins, end scrapers, resharpened flakes, and blades with marginal resharpening. Compared with earlier Paleolithic cultures, Aurignacian stone tools reflect (a) an increase in the number of end scrapers, (b) an overall reduction of resharpened blades, and (c) the emergence of carinated and Dufour-type bladelets. Aurignacian stone tools are often made on nonlocal stone, especially in early assemblages, which were obtained from sources as far as 45 km from where they were found by archaeologists. Understanding of the chronological development of Aurignacian stone tools is hampered by the fact that most Aurignacian assemblages have comparatively low diversity indices and overall small sample sizes. Consequently, the shape of the base of bone projectile points is often used as primary chronological markers instead. For example, Aurignacian Phases I-V are characterized by split, forked, beveled, and unmodifed bases, respectively.
The geographic distribution of Aurignacian Culture ranges from “classic” manifestations in continental Europe, particularly southwestern France, to perhaps pre- and proto-Aurignacian in the Levant, the Zagros, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Far from an in situ European development, archaeologists now think that Aurignacian culture most likely descends from one of these eastern core areas and appeared in Europe through relatively late population movements.
Aurignacian populations were organized into small, nomadic hunting-and-gathering bands that probably occupied a territory of less than 200 sq km. Settlement patterns, at least for the classic Aurignacian, were focused on river valleys in both open and rockshelter sites. Internal site patterning was documented at a series of open sites on the Hornad River in the former Czechoslovakia and consisted of multiple, variably shaped features and postholes. It has been hypothesized that these are the remains of structures with internal hearths.
Paleoenvironmental data indicate the early Aurignacian was marked by a cold, dry, and open steppelike environment, whereas the late Aurignacian saw a warm, wet, and forested environment. This environmental shift is corroborated by changes in Aurignacian stone tool technology and economy. For example, in the Vezere Valley of southwestern France, the number of burins and thick scrapers increases in later assemblages, which is argued to reflect adaptations to changes in the type and distribution of plants and animals. Early Aurignacian artifact assemblages are dominated by the combination of reindeer and high proportions of nonlocal stone, while later ones contain greater animal diversity (seasonally available small mammals and fish) and a lower proportion of nonlocal stone. Taken collectively, the environmental and archaeological data are consistent with a pattern of highly specialized hunting and gathering for the early Aurignacian, presumably associated with the acquisition of highly mobile animals, and a more generalized food-getting strategy for later Aurignacian, as an array of diverse, less mobile fauna became locally available.
Artistic expression also begins to take on more importance during the Aurignacian. Examples of dec-orated bone, antler, and stone blocks have been found at Aurignacian sites in Spain and southwestern France. Some French caves contain geometric configurations such as chevrons, crosses, and parallel lines. Animal figurines, and a possible human form, are known from the German site of Vogelherd. These data are often taken as evidence of an Aurignacian symbolic system, though their actual meaning remains enigmatic. Perhaps stronger, yet no less enigmatic, evidence for an Aurignacian symbolic system comes from the site of Cueva Morin in Spain, where a complex burial ritual was documented. This site is unique because it contains four burials, of which Morin I is the best preserved, and instead of skeletal remains, natural casts of the bodies were found. Careful excavation of Morin I showed that the individual was buried on his back in an extended position. The body appeared to have been mutilated, with the head and feet completely removed. A quartzite blade was found undisturbed near the head, and a large animal was placed on top of the torso, while a smaller animal was placed over the legs. The burial pit was then filled and mounded with earth, sprinkled with red ochre (a natural mineral pigment) and set afire. It is postulated that these burial practices persisted for some time, because they were not disturbed by later occupations at Cueva Morin.
The Aurignacian culture began to diminish around 27,000 BP and eventually disappeared completely as local varieties were replaced by the Gravettian culture during the Middle Upper Paleolithic.
- Blades, B. S. (1999). Aurignacian settlement patterns in the Vezere Valley. Current Anthropology 40, 712-719.
- Blades, B. S. (2001). Aurignacian lithic economy: Ecological perspectives from southwestern France. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
- Kozlowski, J. K., & Otte, M. (1999). The formation of the Aurignacian in Europe. Journal of Anthropological Research, 56, 513-534.
- Phillips, P. (1980). The prehistory of Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.