Terra Amata is an open-air Lower Paleolithic, or Early Stone Age, site on the Mediterranean near the delta of the Paillon River in present-day Nice, France. Henri de Lumley, a 20th-century French archaeologist, excavated the site in 1966 prior to the construction of an apartment building, the lowest floor of which now houses the Terra Amata Museum. Terra Amata is perhaps best known for producing evidence of some of the first artificial structures in the world. De Lumley identified hearths, post holes, and limestone blocks arranged in such a way that, when combined with the distribution of artifacts at the site, suggested the presence of temporary oval-shaped structures measuring 7-15 meters in length and 1-6 meters in width. Some structures contained the imprints of animal skins that are hypothesized to have demarcated working areas inside the structure.
The site was originally dated by the thermoluminescence method to 214,000 BP and 244,000 BP, respectively, for an average date of 230,000 BP However, sediments from the archaeological layers at Terra Amata were recently dated by the electron spin resonance method to 380,000 BP, which indirectly indicates it may be older than previously thought.
Terra Amata is a deeply stratified site with archaeological materials distributed throughout three major levels referred to as—starting with the earliest—the Lower Cycle, Beach, and Dune layers. During the excavations there, de Lumley thought he had identified 27 distinct living floors with six in the Lower Cycle, four in the Beach, and eleven in the Dune. Paola Villa’s 1983 reanalysis of Terra Amata revealed a much more complicated depositional history. Villa examined site formation processes at Terra Amata based largely on an analysis of refitted stone artifacts and identified a high degree of vertical displacement of artifacts from one level to another. This observation led Villa to conclude that de Lumley’s stratigraphic divisions were largely arbitrary and did not correspond to distinct anthropocentric levels of the site.
The maximum habitation area at Terra Amata measured approximately 100-150 square meters, though the density and distribution of artifacts in some levels suggested much more limited occupations. De Lumley excavated most of the site and recovered almost 10,000 stone artifacts of the Acheulean Tradition, which is a stone tool tradition associated with Homo erectus. The Acheulean artifacts found at the site consisted mainly of large choppers, expedient unifacial tools, and flake tools made of pebbles and other stone raw materials that originated at the site itself. In addition to an abundant artifact assemblage, ecofacts like animal bone, charcoal, coprolites (i.e., paleofeces), and mussel shells were also recovered. In fact, one level of the site produced 43 coprolites.
Although the remains of animals hunted and consumed by the hominids occupying the site were abundant, they were very fragmentary and not well preserved. Species diversity was high and included elephant (which was the most common), red deer, wild boar, aurochs, thar, bear, and rhino. A small proportion of mussel shells were also identified among the animal remains, however it is unknown whether they were intentionally collected or if they are a natural occurrence.
Coprolites preserved in the Dune stratum contained the pollen of plants that flower in the late spring and early summer, suggesting Terra Amata was occupied at that time of the year. There is anecdotal evidence, particularly in the animal remains, suggesting late fall occupations as well. Regardless of when it was occupied, the artifacts, ecofacts, and structural remains point to occupations of limited duration by nomadic hunter-gatherers during the Lower Paleolithic.
- de Lumley, H. (1969). A Paleolithic camp at Nice. Scientific American, 220, 42-50.
- Villa, P. (1983). Terra Amata and the Middle Pleistocene archaeological record of southern France. University of California Publications in Anthropology, Volume 13. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.