The limestone ridges of central and southern France contain some of the oldest traces of human culture in Europe, dating back tens of thousands of years. Among the most intriguing of these landmarks is the Roche de Solutr, where thousands upon thousands of horse bones have been found, along with stone spear points and butchering tools. What happened here? Archaeologists think that generations of Ice Age hunters came to this spot to corner and kill horses over the course of more than 20,000 years.
Researchers once assumed Ice Age hunters slaughtered horses by forcing them to plunge from the top of the Roche de Solutré. But in fact, no horse remains have ever been found at the foot of this cliff. Instead, the bones were discovered on the southern side of the ridge, where the slope is more gradual. So how were the horses killed? Recent studies suggest hunters used the ridge as a barrier to trap the horses. Horses may have traveled past the Roche de Solutré during seasonal migrations. Hunters likely drove the horses toward a curve in the rock that served as a natural corral. Then others attacked the horses with spears from the cliff above.
Over the Top?
Solutr was discovered in 1866 by a local geographer named Adrien Arcelin, who later wrote a popular novel describing what he thought had happened there. In one scene from the book, Ice Age hunters killed dozens of horses at once by driving them over the precipice at the western end of the Roche de Solutré. Horse hunts probably didn't happen this way, but the idea--made vivid by a number of drawings and paintings--persisted for years.
Prehistoric hunters may have used stone blades shaped like laurel leaves to cut horsemeat, and stone scrapers to prepare horsehides. Sharp burins may have helped people split the bones to make artifacts such as sewing needles.
Based on the concentration of bones found at Solutré, researchers estimate that Ice Age people killed between 30,000 and 100,000 horses there in the course of some 20,000 years. But surprisingly, the hunters may not have eaten much of the meat--very few of the bones have the cut marks typically found on butchered animals. Perhaps the carcasses were simply too big to be fully used, and were left to rot after the choicest bits were devoured.
Each summer and winter, the roots of a horse's teeth develop new layers of cementum, a bonelike material that keeps the teeth firmly attached to the jaw. By examining the layers through a microscope, scientists can often tell what time of year the animal died. Researchers studied a sample of teeth found at Solutr and found that most came from horses killed during the warm months of the year. One tooth shown on display was found together with a stone tool.