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This article is somewhat of a departure from my usual fare. For one thing, it has nothing to do with the ancient Near East. For another, I will not be assaulting the usual fringe whimsy of aliens or giants or Atlanteans, what have you.

Recently the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, opened a fascinating new exhibition called “Scenes of the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux.” My article, then, will take us to France of the Upper Paleolithic, and specifically to the Dordogne department (southwest France). I have never been terribly interested in prehistoric Europe but have found myself captivated by the museum’s new exhibit.

Most of the artifacts in the exhibit, including the incredibly realistic, replica cave-wall sections with painted representational images, belong to the French government. However, as is typical with the Field Museum, numerous artifacts on display are from the Field’s own vast collection. A particular item belonging to the Field, and one of the first things guests encounter upon entering, is a prehistoric skeleton.

In my own time working in the exhibit thus far, this skeleton has become my favorite spot to talk with people. Given my penchant for ancient Egyptian mummies, I suppose this isn’t surprising. The skeleton is presented in the Lascaux exhibit as the Magdalenian Woman.

There is of course no way to know what her actual name was. There is no real way even to know what language she spoke. Indo-European (the language family to which modern French belongs) would not even exist for many thousands of years. She is called as the Magdalenian Woman after the Magdalenian period of Paleolithic Europe, so identified by its type of tools and other aspects of material culture. This Paleolithic culture existed in Europe between 17,000 and 11,000 years ago. The period was named for a rock shelter called La Madeleine in the Dordogne department.

The Magdalenian Woman may date to a period of time when the painting activities of the Lascaux cave system were nearing their end or even slightly later. We can’t be sure she ever saw the cave paintings there, although it’s possible: where she was found is only a short distance southwest of Lascaux. Nevertheless, she puts a very human face on the exhibit.

The site where she was found is called Cap Blanc, northeast of the town of Les Eyzies. There is a cliff overhang decorated with beautifully engraved animals dating to the Magdalenian period. These engravings were first discovered in 1909 on the property of a Monsieur J. Grimaud. As with all other decorated cliff faces and cave systems Cap Blanc generated a lot of interest, and many visitors came to see the engravings. Grimaud wished to provided easier access to the cliff face, so he hired a team of workmen to dig the ground to a slightly lower level.

Work proceeded in 1911. In the process, a workman drove a pickaxe into the ground and right through the Magdalenian Woman’s skull, which shattered. This ignominious event is how the remarkable skeleton was discovered, and work ceased so a proper excavation could be performed.

Archaeologists excavating the Magdalenian Woman in 1911.

Archaeologists excavating the Magdalenian Woman in 1911.

The excavation itself was expertly preformed and arguably all remaining sections of the skeleton were successfully retrieved. At once Magdalenian Woman became one of the best-preserved Paleolithic skeletons ever found.

The excavated grave of the Magdalenian Woman in Cap Blanc, France

The excavated grave of the Magdalenian Woman in Cap Blanc, France

Her journey to the Unites States is partly known and partly not. One story has it that the property owner, Grimaud, smuggled her out of World War I Europe in a coffin marked as an American casualty of war. The gist of it is, Grimaud was hoping to sell the skeleton to a museum in New York, for a price the equivalent of $250,000 today. Needless to say, no one in New York was terribly interested.

Henry Field, then president of the Field Museum in Chicago, got wind of this and traveled to New York. He was eventually successful in talking the price down with Grimaud, and purchased the skeleton for around $1,000. At the Field Museum in the 1920s, an exacting life-sized diorama was constructed to show the engraved cliff art of Cap Blanc as well as the grave of the Magdalenian Woman, and tens of thousands of people lined up to see her. It remains one of the Field’s most successul days to the present time.

Early on there was some debate on the sex of the skeleton but it was eventually identified as female, due largely to the pelvic bones (one of the most important sex indicators in human skeletons). A greater debate was the age of this individual at death. As Field anthropologist Bob Martin has noted, from the neck up this individual looks to be an older adolescent girl while from the neck down she seems to be an adult female.

A great deal of confusion early on was due to the Magdalenian Woman’s third molars, or wisdom teeth. They had not erupted. This was unusual for people of the Upper Paleolithic, whose wisdom teeth in extant skeletons are usually there. They cause all manner of problems for many people today and often have to be pulled, but 15,000 years ago, when the Magdalenian Woman lived, the coarser diet allowed for greater jaw development and a more efficient development for all teeth, including those third molars.

For this reason she was thought to be a girl of about 18 years of age, which is about when the wisdom teeth will erupt in modern populations. However, in recent X-rays and CT scans conducted at the Field, new information surfaced to change this understanding. The Magdalenian Woman evidences normal degenerative wear on bones such as the vertebrae, and her epiphyses are fully fused. This happens only in a fully mature adult.

What the recent studies also reveal is that the wisdom teeth of the Magdalenian Woman seem to have been impacted, and thus could not have erupted from her jaw.

X-ray showing the Magdalenian Woman's impacted wisdom tooth in the proper-right mandible.

X-ray showing the Magdalenian Woman’s impacted wisdom tooth in the proper-right mandible.

Given the overall state of the skeleton as well as the impacted wisdom teeth, the Magdalenian Woman is now thought to have been around 30 years old at death. This would’ve been a fairly typical lifespan in the Upper Paleolithic.

These are the findings of the anthropologists who poured many hours into the analyses of the Magdalenian Woman’s skeleton, and I tend to defer to them. However, not everyone agrees. I’ve met a couple of dentists and have showed them an image of the above radiograph, and both noticed something immediately about that impacted wisdom tooth in the lower jaw. Its roots never formed. This leads them to believe that the Magdalenian Woman was indeed a girl. See the archaeological diagram below, which is a tool used to help establish the age of an individual based upon the development of his or her teeth:

Archaeological diagram to help define the age of a skeleton based on dental development.

Archaeological diagram to help define the age of a person based on dental development.

If you compare this chart with the above radiograph image, the mandible of the Magdalenian Woman does indeed more resemble the dental development of an adolescent (note the jaw of the 15 year old at bottom-left). The third molar is still inside the jaw and root development is not complete. This is clearly different from the dental development of an adult (note the jaw at bottom-right, of a 21 year old).

I have no expertise in dentistry or its important archaeological applications, but I have to admit the two dentists I’ve met made a good point. I am left to wonder if there is some medical condition that would cause delayed development of the third molar in this way, because, as noted earlier, all other age indicators on the skeleton are clear on the mature age of the Magdalenian Woman. The epiphyses (growth plates) do not fuse on the long bones and other bones of children, and the Magdalenian Woman does not otherwise evidence health issues to make one wonder about that.

In years past this skeleton was known as the Magdalenian Girl because of those wisdom teeth, but her new moniker is the Magdalenian Woman due to the recent studies performed at the Field Museum. You’ll also see her identified as the Cap Blanc Lady. The real mystery is why an adult female would have the third molars of an adolescent girl.

It is indeed a remarkable skeleton. It is the most complete Upper Paleolithic skeleton in North America. She is a treasure of the Field Museum’s collection and was removed from Evolving Planet, our permanent exhibit about evolution and dinosaurs, to be installed inside the Lascaux exhibit for its run. Some years back the Field produced an exacting replica of the skeleton as a gift to the Cap Blanc Museum, which stands now at that cliff overhang on what was once Monsieur J. Grimaud’s private property.

That the Magdalenian Woman was buried at this site some 15,000 years ago is not in dispute. This was a grave site. While human bodies have not been found inside the elaborately decorated caves of Solutrean and Magdalenian Europe, they have in fact been found out front of open-air, decorated Magdalenian cliff overhangs. Her cause of death is not known—nothing on her skeleton gives us information about that.

The Field Museum has a professional working relationship with the renowned French artist Elisabeth Daynes, whose hyper-realistic forensic reconstructions are well known—she did the bust of Tutankhamun which appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 2005. Daynes has done a number of these reconstructions for the Field Museum, and for our run of the Lascaux exhibit she did one for the Magdalenian Woman:

Forensic bust of the Magdalenian Woman by the French artist Elisabeth Daynes.

Forensic bust of the Magdalenian Woman by the French artist Elisabeth Daynes.

Few artists are as skilled at this sort of thing as Daynes. She has brought the Magdalenian Woman to life. Certain things are of course only a surmise, such as the shape of the nose and lips and ears, as well as eye color and hair color. Given that this was Ice Age Europe and more than 100,000 years after Homo sapiens first left Africa, the skin color is probably accurate. The elaborate bead-and-shell net cap was not found in the Magdalenian Woman’s grave, but other graves dating to the same period have rendered such shells and beads, so it is theoretically possible. And quite beautiful, in my opinion. As is the forensic bust.

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I’ll leave you with some other photos concerning the Magdalenian Woman:

The skeleton of the Magdalenian Woman as displayed in the Lascaux exhibit.

The skeleton of the Magdalenian Woman as displayed in the Lascaux exhibit.
An old display of the Magdalenian Woman with inaccurate positioning.

An old display of the Magdalenian Woman with inaccurate positioning.

CT scan reconstructions of the Magdalenian Woman's skull, which assisted Elisabeth Daynes in producing the forensic bust.

CT scan reconstructions of the Magdalenian Woman’s skull, which assisted Elisabeth Daynes in producing the forensic bust.

Postscript (6/22/13)

Subsequent to my posting this article I was able to meet with a Field Museum curator, J.P. Brown, who has done a lot of the CT scanning work on our collection’s human remains. Brown showed me scans of the Magdalenian Woman’s jaw I had not seen before, and cleared up this issue of the third molars for me.

The third molar in the radiograph image in this article shows the only one in the woman’s jaw that developed to any extent. Two of her other wisdom teeth are severely underdeveloped and have only vestigial roots, while the fourth never developed at all. It’s simply not there.

So, in summary, it would appear that there was not enough space or tissue in that area of the jaw for the Magdalenian Woman’s third molars to grow properly.

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Bahn. Paul. written in bones: how human remains unlock the secrets of the dead. 2012.

Brothwell, DR. Digging up Bones. 1981.

Fagan, Brian M. In the Beginning: An Introduction to Archaeology. 1985.

Field Museum of Natural History: Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux.

Lewis-Williams, David. The Mind in the Cave. 2002.