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Death after life 5,000 years ago

For the last four years researchers have been moving heaven and earth in the cramped interior of Mykolas Cave to understand how they used to bury their dead in this secluded place which can only be reached on hands and knees. Now their efforts are being rewarded. Outside the cave, just as you go in, mother-of-pearl beads and pieces of broken vases found this year have revealed the ground level where our ancestors trod about 5,000 years ago.

Inside, the first really striking burial act in this cavity is proudly displayed: a skull placed, after decomposition and therefore for a second purpose, on a number of human remains (shaft of humerus and teeth) mixed together with pieces of broken pottery. This arrangement is set in the centre of two circles of stones - one just around the skull and the other a little bit further away.

To find such a deliberate assemblage undamaged is nothing short of a miracle; in the mingle-mangle of bones commonly found in shared burial places worms and badgers invariably cause chaos. It augers well for the next phase in the excavations - due to start in the coming year.


In autumn 2006, on a hillside near Le Bugue, two caver-pals from the G3S club along with three-year-old Mykolas (the son of one of them) dug their way to the entrance to a badger’s den; the warm air coming out of it held the promise of a fine cavity.

A few thrusts of the pickaxe and they were able to wriggle down the narrow hole to come face to face with a dozen skeletons partially buried beneath the badgers’ litter and the clay brought patiently to the surface by the worms. As it turned out, they had had plenty of time for that! A team of scientists from different fields of study were promptly informed and sent to the spot to take samples for dating. The results: our ancestors have been resting there for around 5,000 years.

Thanks to their surveys, Eric Castaing, Jean-Michel Degeix and his son Mykolas had discovered nothing less than a late Neolithic burial chamber – an amazing find, since, sadly, little is known about this period in history.


Since the discovery of Mykolas Cave in 2006 a rigorous excavation programme has been implemented by Antoine Chancerel, curator of the Musée National de Préhistoire and Neolithic expert, and Patrice Courtaud, anthropologist at the Laboratoire des Populations du Passé de Bordeaux. These excavations are being financed by the Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles d’Aquitaine, Service Régionale de l’Archéologie, and by the Conseil Général de la Dordogne, Service Archéologique départemental.
The teamwork has been brilliant right from the start, with the finders and the researchers joining forces. This year, with the aid of a mechanical digger masterfully operated by Jean-Michel Degeix (a considerably tricky task in view of the dangerously steep slope), the tree stump which was blocking the entrance to the cave has been removed, thus speeding up investigation work.

As a result, at the end of the three initial phases in the excavation programme, during which the sediments outside the cave and the badgers’ litter covering the bones of the twelve individuals inside were removed, the researchers have been able to reveal two all-important observations outside and in the centre of the sepulchre.


Outside, the ground our Neolithic ancestors trod has been located and dated thanks to the pieces of broken pottery which are typical of the era and the beads made from pierced shells (Dentaliidae) identical to those found inside.

Had the necklace been broken before the body and the offerings were placed in the cavity? This kind of find invariably conjures up pictures of daily life in the minds of the investigators.

Inside things are becoming clearer. Patrice Courtaud draws our attention to an assemblage which has remained intact: two circles of stones and in the middle of the smaller one, securely wedged upon a collection of human bones and pieces of broken ceramics, a cranium in what can only be “the place of honour”.

This act was performed after decomposition, so those involved had clearly returned to the burial chamber. Smooth stone paving covers the floor of the cavity and the whole surface is expected to be cleared during the excavation work due to start next year.

Sophie Cattoire

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