It’s hard to imagine a nicer place for them to have lived 1.57 million years ago. The site is near the village of Lézignan-le-Cèbe, in the lower Hérault valley – roughly between Montpellier and Béziers, France. The paper describing the site, by Jean-Yves Crochet and colleagues, is brief, with a faunal list, a description of the geology, and a short summary of the artifactual record.
The geology seems very secure. The archaeological remains are in a layer capped by a basalt flow, with radiometric dates around 1.56 million years ago. The fauna are consistent with this early date. So it’s the real deal.
The paper has an abridged English translation along with the French text, and I’ll just paste what they write about the artifacts:
The lithic assemblage includes 20 artefacts of pebble-culture type. The supports and striking platforms are quartzitic pebbles, large basaltic ?akes and fragments, and smaller ?int pebbles. All flakes are exclusively produced by direct percussion, employing a hard stone hammer. Unilateral alterations can be observed on the periphery of certain flakes. The pebbles are developed in chopping-tools, and their edges often show traces of repetitive impacts. The lithic assemblage found at the locus 2 shows similar primary technical features to those from the other Early Pleistocene European sites [10,11,17,20,30,34] (Crochet et al. 2009:727).
The French text contains some additional comparisons of the lithic artifacts with those from other French sites of Villafranchian faunal age. The site may not be unique except in its stratigraphy which allows very secure dating.
UPDATE (2009-12-18): A reader tells me that the paper is available from the French Academy website for those who don’t have institutional access to ScienceDirect.
I have heard from some people who are skeptical about the artifacts. I venture no opinion – I’d like to see the results of their further investigation of taphonomy, in particular whether the “intentionally broken” animal bones were really human-modified. That should be testable, and of course a couple of cutmarks would go a long way.
Crochet J-Y, Welcomme J-L, Ivorra J, Ruffet G, Boulbes N, Capdevila R, Claude J, Firmat C, Métais G, Michaux J, Pickford M. 2009. Une nouvelle faune de vertébrés continentaux, associée à des artifacts dans le Pléistocène inférieur de l'Hérault (Sud de la France), ver 1,57 Ma. C R Palevol 8:725-736. doi:10.1016/j.crpv.2009.06.004