Good Afternoon, my name is Leon Veal, I am currently an archaeology undergraduate at UCL (University College London) and I have been fortunate enough to be handed the opportunity to contribute to the Ice Age Island Project here in sunny (and occasionally very wet) Jersey.
As an archaeology student I have had to assess a multitude of archaeological sites and excavations largely through the medium of digital databases. Prior to my arrival at Jersey I heavily researched the rich Palaeolithic history of Jersey (specifically La Cotte de St Brelade) through both images, articles and academic papers. However, nothing could have prepare me for what I encountered here on the island. Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learnt here is that no matter how much you read, you cannot wholly understand, or even comprehend the magnitude of a site until you experience it first-hand.
Two days ago we took a walk across St Brelade Bay utilising the ‘ever-wise and all-knowing’ Matt Pope as a tour guide. We considered just about all the aspects of La Cotte and the surrounding area in both a past and present context. It is hard to put in to words the exact feelings that the landscape stirred up inside of me. I feel that too often we consider archaeology as a science that simply aims to seek answers without any real emotional investment, and this is something i am guilty of myself. Throughout our walk across St Brelade Bay, Matt was insistant that we put ourselves into the shoes of the contemporary coastal inhabitants, the Neanderthals.
Through retracing the geological processes that have elapsed over long periods in the landscape we were able to establish what certain areas of the site would have been used for. It was the most simple tasks undertaken by Neanderthals that seemed to affect me the most. During the walk we all sat on some rocks to the east of the cave that were sheltered from the wind, Matt explained that it was highly possible that Neanderthals had been sitting and relaxing in that very spot up to 240, 000 years ago. I found the experience overwhelming. It is highly likely that the view we had of the sea was almost exactly the same for Neanderthals at certain particular points throughout time. The whole experience made me realise that the Neanderthals are more than an extinct genus lost to textbooks. In fact, in theory there is not much hard evidence to suggest that Neanderthals were that much different from us. The experience of sitting on these rocks and looking out to the sea was almost a shared experience taking place between two different, yet fundamentally similar genus’ of homo.
Despite previously seeing photos of La Cotte, nothing could have quite prepared me for the sheer magnitude of the site, it is extremely strange, yet comforting to think that contemporary Neanderthals would have perceived the sight in the same way. Throughout the tour I attempted to really put myself into the mindset of a Neanderthal, and the experience left me feeling a little uneasy. It is most likely that somewhere amongst this coast around 50,000 years ago there was one single remaining Neanderthal. They would have been the last of the their species on a potentially isolated island. It was overwhelming and almost haunting to consider that last Neanderthal may have sat in the spot as me and gazed out over the ocean knowing that they were completely alone.
However, thankfully we know that the Neanderthal’s didn’t completely die out. Almost every human outside of Africa possesses an average of 2.6 percent Neanderthal DNA. Personally I am proud of my distant Neanderthal ancestry and i am strangely comforted by the knowledge that a little remainder of this magnificent genus lives on inside of us all.