Terra Amata: the prehistoric roots of Nice

Nice today is a resort city, located on the shores of France’s luxurious Côte d’Azur. But the city wasn’t always pebbled beaches and bronzing tourists. That’s why I sought to indulge my history addiction and visit an archaeological dig near Nice’s Old Port in order to discover who were the first inhabitants of one of France’s most popular summer destinations.

Terra Amata 1-minTerra Amata 2-min
What humans looked like, about 30 million years ago.

Let’s go back about 400,000 years, give or take a century. The sea is 26 metres higher than it is today. Most of modern Nice is thus, deeply underwater. A small group of elephant hunters have been drawn to this region, known to scientists as the archaeological site of Terra Amata.

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Skulls with samples of that era’s tools and technology. On the left, 1 million to 500,000 years ago. On the right, 40,000 years ago.

What did Terra Amata look like 400,000 years ago?

Terra Amata was a small inlet, well protected by the sea and the surrounding mountains, making it an ideal location. The local vegetation was of a coastal type. The open plains were bordered by ash, alder and willow trees. Mont Baron was covered in Mediterranean plants, Aleppo pine trees, green oaks and pistachio. The whole region was surrounded by mountains and coniferous forests, which continue to exist today.

The world experienced vast environmental and climatic changes during the Pleistocene period, of which the Terra Amata hunters were a part of the Middle Pleistocene.

Terra Amata 6-min

Where did they live?

These elephant hunters lived in simple dwellings camped near the shoreline. Their homes were made from branches found on the ground and centred around a hearth made of pebbles gathered from the beaches. Stones encircled the huts to help anchor the base of branches. Fire was immensely important to the people of these settlements, proven by the high amount of charcoal in their huts. They had little concern for the appearance of their homes – they often strew food and bone debris all over the floor of their huts. There was little concern for protection from the elements due to the region’s ideal climate. These were the first open-air camps.

Terra Amata 10-min
A reconstruction of a Terra Amata hut. A wire framed hunter is carrying a wild boar towards the hut.

What did they hunt?

These people primarily hunted elephant, and if unavailable, they searched for deer. They preferred to target young animals which were easier to kill. These hunters chased primitive species of modern cattle, as well as herds of rhinoceros, across the vast open plains. Bears, wild boar and mountain goats gathered on Mont Baron. Rabbits, tortoise and some bird species sometimes made it on the menu. Oddly, these hunters rarely took advantage of the abundant marine life located along the shores, although they did occasionally trap fish or collect shellfish.

Terra Amata 7-min

What tools did they use?

It was during the time of the arrival of the elephant hunters than man discovered fire. Using the vast supply of rocks given to them by the beach, these peoples manufactured a wide range of choppers, hand axes and scrappers for their use. They made their tools through the method of chipping off flakes, by hitting one stone with another. Their tool preferences has been classified today as “Lower Acheulian”. This category features a high proportion of choppers and picks. Axes and cleavers were more rare, but still evident. The same category describes settlements such as Torralba (Spain), Torre (Italy) and Ternifine (Algeria).

Terra Amata 8-min

What did they look like?

There is one clue given to us today by a footprint left on the sand dunes by a local hunter’s right foot. Judging by the imprint left, the hunter was probably 1.55 meters tall. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing if this hunter was a child, an adolescent or an adult.

Terra Amata 9-min

Otherwise, these people likely looked like most other humans of the time – shorter, stockier, and with darker skin and less refined features. They would have been very muscular due to their hunting lifestyle. They would have had a very short life span of just 30 years for women, or 35 years for men.

Terra Amata 5-min
Skulls and tools from 25,000 years ago (left) and 15,000 years ago (right). I rather like how the one on the left looks like he’s a pretty happy camper.

We humans have come a long way from the men and women of Terra Amata. But it makes me wonder – how long before our skulls end up in museums and the new modern man gawks at our funny faces? What will humans look like by then?

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