The Mask of la Roche-Cotard
Continuing with my “strange old things” theme, here we have the Mask of la Roche-Cotard. Unlike our previous rock, this rock has been shaped by human (well, Neanderthal) hands. It’s a piece of flint about 4 inches (10 cm) tall and wide, and through a natural hole under the “nose” a piece of bone was driven and then wedged in place with two rock splinters. The shape of the original rock was further modified by chipping away to increase its resemblance to, well, something. A human face or an animal face maybe? It was made about 33,000 years ago in France, most likely by Neanderthals of the Mousterian Culture.
Is it really a face? Who knows. It seems pretty clear to me that it was deliberately created, but even that is subject to debate. If one was just throwing useless bits of bone and flint into a pile, something like this could come about by chance I suppose. The bone piece seems pretty deliberate to me though with the wedges holding it in place. And when it was new, the “eyes” would have been whiter and more noticeable. Still, some have claimed that it is not representational at all, and in fact it had some as yet undetermined practical use. In this case the resemblance to a face would have been accidental, and maybe not even noticed by the Neanderthals using the item.
So what is the significance of this discovery? Well, some background. The whole Neanderthal thing is a mystery. The Neanderthals were our brothers, in fact it was only a few hundred thousand years ago that humans and Neanderthals diverged from a common ancestor. Humans and Neanderthals didn’t have a whole lot of contact, but in some places we lived in close proximity for thousands of years. They made stone tools, buried their dead, and were really into eating meat. They may have had language, ornamentation such as body paint and jewellery, and music. They definitely interbred with humans, the gentle reader no doubt has at least some Neanderthal DNA in him or her. So the big question remains, could a human have sat down with a Neanderthal and had a philosophical discussion, or were they little more than tool using apes?
And this is what the Mask of la Roche-Cotard may hint at. If it was made by a Neanderthals as a representation of a face, it shows a cognizance of self identity that animals simply don’t possess. In fact I would argue that it shows that Neanderthals were human in every sense of the word. Were they? My suspicion is that they were human, and this mask is an example of such. I think it was just kids playing around, or an adult playing with kids, in either case it was someone constructing this to impress, maybe even as a joke, their fellows. It’s also possible that it was made by a single Neanderthal genius, and not representational of the typical Neanderthal.
Will we ever really know? In regards to this particular artifact, probably not. Still, our relationship with Neanderthals is important. They were both our brothers … and aliens. How we related to them may be a harbinger of how we will relate to true aliens if we ever meet them. It’s still not known why the Neanderthal line failed and our line thrived. Their brains were as large as ours, maybe even larger. Yet somehow they never made it out of the Stone Age, the last ones disappearing just as humans were starting to make cave art. The Neanderthals didn’t even cave art, this mask may be the only self portrait of a Neanderthal that we will ever have.
I think that’s both amazing and sad.
(The above image is claimed as Public Domain under US copyright light, the original creator of the work having been dead some 30,000 years.)