Lartet Discovers the First Cro-Magnon Remains Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Excavations in France’s Cro-Magnon rock shelter led to the discovery and establishment of Cro-Magnon humans as the earliest known example of the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens in Europe and added a new stage to the cultural sequencing of early human hisory.

Summary of Event

Édouard Lartet made three significant contributions to what had been the new field of paleontology. Believing that the Stone Age was not a single phase in human evolution, he proposed dividing it into a series of phases and established a system of classifications to that end. His research led to the establishment of the Upper Paleolithic as a distinctive period of the Stone Age. He discovered the first evidence of Paleolithic art. Although Lartet completed a degree in law after studying at Auch and Toulouse and began the practice of law in Gers, his real interest lay in science. Inspired by the work of Georges Cuvier Cuvier, Georges , he began doing excavations around Auch, France, in 1834. There he found fossil Fossils;human remains that led him to devote his time to excavation and research. He began a systematic investigation of the caves in the area. Lartet, Édouard Cro-Magnon man[CroMagnon man] Paleontology;Cro-Magnon man[CroMagnon man] Evolution;and Cro-Magnon man[CroMagnon man] Lartet, Louis Christy, Henry Anthropology;physical [kw]Lartet Discovers the First Cro-Magnon Remains (Mar., 1868) [kw]Discovers the First Cro-Magnon Remains, Lartet (Mar., 1868) [kw]First Cro-Magnon Remains, Lartet Discovers the (Mar., 1868) [kw]Cro-Magnon Remains, Lartet Discovers the First (Mar., 1868) [kw]Remains, Lartet Discovers the First Cro-Magnon (Mar., 1868) Lartet, Édouard Cro-Magnon man[CroMagnon man] Paleontology;Cro-Magnon man[CroMagnon man] Evolution;and Cro-Magnon man[CroMagnon man] Lartet, Louis Christy, Henry Anthropology;physical [g]France;Mar., 1868: Lartet Discovers the First Cro-Magnon Remains[4160] [c]Biology;Mar., 1868: Lartet Discovers the First Cro-Magnon Remains[4160] [c]Genetics;Mar., 1868: Lartet Discovers the First Cro-Magnon Remains[4160] [c]Archaeology;Mar., 1868: Lartet Discovers the First Cro-Magnon Remains[4160]

In 1858, Lartet was joined by his friend Henry Christy, an Englishman who had been working in ethnology. The son of a London hatter, Christy had joined his father’s firm but became interested in ethnology because of his travels. He attended the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was so impressed that, like Édouard, he changed careers and devoted the rest of his life to travel and research into human evolution. Lartet and Christy focused their work in the caves located in the valley of the Vezere, a tributary of the Dordogne River. By 1861, Lartet began publishing his research. His “Sur l’ancienneté géologique de l’espèce humaine dans l’Europe occidentale” (1860; the antiquity of humans in western Europe) appeared, and the following year he published the results of his investigations and excavations in the cave of Aurignac. In New Researches on the Coexistence of Man and of the Great Fossil Mammifers Characteristic of the Last Geological Period (1861) he presented evidence that human beings existed during the same time period that saw other mammals, which are now extinct.

In 1863, Lartet and Christy were involved in a series of excavations in the Dordogne Valley, with sites at Gorge d’Enfer, Laugerie Haute, La Madeleine, Le Moustier, and Les Eyzies. They published several articles on their findings, the most important of which was an article in the journal Revue archéologique and the short work Cavernes du Périgord: Objets gravés et sculptés des temps pré-historiques dans l’Europe Occidentale (1864). They had planned to publish a book on their research but Christy died of lung inflammation on May 4, 1865. The book was partially written but Édouard continued working on it. It was finally completed by Rupert Jones Jones, Rupert only after Lartet’s death and published as Reliquiae Aquitanicae: Being Contributions to the Archaeology and Paleontology of Périgord and the Adjoining Provinces of Southern France in 1875.

Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Excavation Sites in Germany and France





Lartet continued his work in archaeology and paleontology until his health began to fail in 1870. He died the following year. Before then, his son Louis Lartet, who was also a paleontologist and a geologist, had begun working with him. In 1868, a railway was being built through the hilly countryside of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. In March of that year, a crew of workers who were excavating the hillsides found chipped flints, animal bones, and human remains in a rock shelter called Cro-Magnon. The contractors in charge of building the railway contacted Louis Lartet, who took charge of a scientific excavation of the shelter.

The younger Lartet’s excavations revealed that the shelter contained five archaeological layers. The human remains, bones of animals belonging to extinct species, and flint, which showed evidence of having been worked with tools, were found in the topmost layer. Lartet determined that these remains and flints were from the Upper Paleolithic (a period dating from approximately 35,000 to 10,000 years ago). In the back of the shelter he found five skeletons, or parts of skeletons, decorated with ornaments, many of which were made from pierced seashells.

It is possible that there were remains of ten skeletons found in the shelter but the fragments of only five were preserved and studied. The excavators found the partial skeletons of four adults and one newborn child. Among the skeletal remains were the cranium and mandible of a male believed to have been about fifty years old at the time of his death. This specimen became known as the Old Man of Cro-Magnon (or Cro-Magnon I) and is considered a typical example of the peoples now known as Cro-Magnon.


The remains that Louis Lartet found in the rock shelter at Cro-Magnon were the first human remains recognized as from the Upper Paleolithic period. Lartet’s discovery made important contributions to the work that his father had done on the cultural sequencing of human beings. Édouard Lartet and Henry Christy had found evidence of art that was created during the Paleolithic period. Louis Lartet’s discovery of the skeletons decorated with ornamentation and the pierced seashells gave further evidence of the intellectual and creative abilities of the human beings of the period. In addition, the findings at Cro-Magnon revealed that the people living during this period were deliberately burying their dead. Not only had they situated the dead in special places, but they also prepared the bodies with ornamentation.

Thus, the discoveries made in the rock shelter at Cro-Magnon helped to complete the definition of Upper Paleolithic humans as toolmakers, artists, and thinking individuals who had some conscious understanding of life and death. In Lartet’s opinion the flint tools he found with the skeletons linked the Cro-Magnons to the Aurignacian culture he had identified a few years earlier. The tools had many features characteristic of the tool industry of the Aurignacian period.

Louis Lartet’s findings at Cro-Magnon also added a new phase to the cultural sequencing of human evolution, which his father had created. The Cro-Magnon skeletal remains are the earliest known examples in Europe of the subspecies to which humankind belongs. Although Cro-Magnon originally indicated the site at which the rock shelter was located, the term has come to be used in a general sense to refer to the oldest modern peoples of Europe.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clos, Lynne. Field Adventures in Paleontology. Boulder, Colo.: Fossil News, 2003. Although this book does not specifically cover Cro-Magnon, it addresses the work of paleontologists in an easily understandable form. Useful for the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dawkins, Richard. The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Includes a chapter on Cro-Magnon. Using the format of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Dawkins looks at discoveries and developments in human evolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Diamond, Jared. The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Treats evolution of human social development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lynch, John, and Louise Barrett. Walking with Cavemen: Eye-to-Eye with Your Ancestors. New York: DK Adult, 2003. Based on James Burke’s Discovery Science series. Examines human evolution from its beginnings in Africa, and includes accounts of archaeological discoveries. Illustrated with live-action photography and computer-generated graphics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olson, Steve. Mapping Human History: Genes, Races, and Our Common Origins. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Discusses physical anthropology and human migration, with an emphasis on the common ancestry of all human beings. Explores the early species in Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wells, Spencer. The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. Discusses the discovery of Cro-Magnon. Scientifically accurate yet easily read by general readers. Includes excellent maps and diagrams. Companion volume to a PBS National Geographic special.

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