Chiseling Away at the Mystery of the Neanderthal Mask of La Roche-Cotard


A piece of flat flint may have been shaped by the hands of a Neanderthal who once lived near the cave La Roche-Cotard in the territory of Langeais, France. Many people see a face in this artifact, which they call one of the oldest pieces of art on Earth.

The Mask of la Roche-Cotard, also called the “Mousterian Proto-figurine”, was discovered in 1975 and re-examined in 2003 by Jean-Claude Marquet, curator of the Museum of Prehistory of Grand-Pressigny, and Michel Lorblanchet, a director of research in the French National Centre of Scientific Research, Roc des Monges, at Saint-Sozy. The mask is about 10 cm (3.94 inches) tall, and not very well preserved.

It is dated to be about 35,000 years old, thus created during the Mousterian period. This was a time when Neanderthal society seemed to be quite advanced and creative. However, they still lived in caves and it is believed that their lives were primarily focused on daily survival. In fact, we don’t know what sources of entertainment they preferred, if they played games, or even how they sounded when they spoke. The most useful messages for researchers today have been found painted and carved on stones.

The mask of la Roche-Cotard. ( Doug’s Darkworld )

Is it Really a Face?

Not everybody is convinced that the prehistoric “mask” truly depicts a face. A 7.5 cm (2.95 inch) long bone put between the eyes suggests that it couldn’t have been made naturally, but the question remains if the artifact was meant to represent a face. Studies of objects related to this period are still very difficult to perform. A lack of written resources means that researchers must decode the symbolism of discovered artifacts without any written help from the past.

Nonetheless, if the piece of stone is really a face, it is one of the greatest proofs for advanced Neanderthal skills in creating art. Researchers often compare the mask with two other discoveries: the bear face from Tolbaga in Siberia and the Brekhat Ram figurine. It appears as an example of culture in the Upper Paleolithic period.

Another problem related to this artifact is the question of Neanderthal artistic ability itself. Research has suggested that they could paint and there are also some sculptures that have been found that were made by them. The figurines of Neolithic “Venuses” and other small sculptures of animals should be enough to prove the skills of the first artists in the world.

However, many researchers still underestimate the power of prehistoric art. They try to explain that the artifacts weren’t consciously created, saying that the depictions are simply drawings and figurines that were created in the same way as little children make them – based on intuition and not on artistic vision.

Nevertheless, mortuary practices suggest that Neanderthals were abstract thinkers and they analyzed the concepts of life and death. Despite this, the most skeptical researchers suggest that the Mask of la Roche-Cotard was formed by nature, and they argue that an interpretation of it as the piece of art is a big misunderstanding.

A facial reconstruction of a Neanderthal.

A facial reconstruction of a Neanderthal. ( Natural History Museum, London )

According to Paul Pettitt from the University of Sheffield, who wrote an article ”Is this the infancy of art? Or the art of an infant? A possible Neanderthal face from La Roche-Cotard, France” , the key to the secret of the mask may be in the bone located in the location of the eyes:

”If the association of the nodule, bone and flint ‘wedges’ is, by contrast, a product of human agency, the next task would be to eliminate a more prosaic function. Presumably, analysis of the bone splinter and interior of the tube may inform as to whether the piece was used to create friction, e.g., for simple pyrotechnology, or because the stone was intended to be used to shape the bone splinter. The small removals on the periphery of the block are mainly on one edge, and, it may be argued, facilitate access to the tube or at least the passing of the bone splinter to and fro within it. Once these hypotheses are eliminated, the argument for this being representational art will be much stronger.”

Features of the mask.

Features of the mask. ( Don’s Maps )

A Cave of Treasures

The cave is located between the Cinq-Mars-La-Pile and the town of Langeais (Indre-et-Loire). The site was known since the beginning of the 20th century. However, the level where the mask was found was studied much later. The la Roche-Cotard II site was discovered in the 1970s. This is when the researchers recognized the inhabited level, which included objects created and used by people 35 thousand years ago.

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