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Ancient Environments

Reconstructing La Micoque

Experts from different scientific fields collaborate at the site of La Micoque, in southwestern France, to paint a picture of life there 300,000 years ago.

Hominid fossils can tell us who our ancestors were, and where and when they lived. But on their own, these fossils say little about the world ancient peoples lived in. What was the climate like? Which plants and animals did people rely on? To answer questions like these, experts analyze a wide range of materials, from cultural objects to plant and animal remains and even samples of soil.

The Pollen Past

Since different plants thrive in different environments, the types of plants that grew at ancient sites can tell us about ancient environments and climates--the temperature and humidity, for instance. Fortunately, many plants reproduce by releasing tiny cells called pollen that often collect in lake bottom sediments where they are preserved: since each plant species' pollen is unique, pollen assemblages can indicate the environment in which they were deposited.

And changes in pollen assemblages--from warm climate species to cold climate ones, for instance--speak to corresponding environmental changes.

Told By Tools

This sharp stone scraper was used to cut and clean animal skins. Moreover, it is Mousterian, a tool style known from other sites to have been produced in the region between about 175,000 and 30,000 years ago. In this way, tools can sometimes provide a rough estimate of their own dates!

Animal Appetite

What can animal bones tell us about our ancestors?

Archaeologists often find great quantities of animal bones at hominid habitation sites--the remains of hominid meals. Such finds speak both to our ancestors' diets and to the variety of wildlife living in the region at the time. This bone fragment, for instance, is from either a bovid--a cloven-hoofed mammal such as a cow--or a deer. The cut marks indicate that ancient humans butchered this animal.

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