I rushed to my apartment and quickly emailed him, asking if he was indeed in Sarlat. Within a few hours I received his stunned response affirming that I had not witnessed someone else masquerading as he. When he inquired why I was there, I explained that I was doing contemporary ethnographic fieldwork in the Perigord, more popularly called the Dordogne, for much the same reason his favorite research subjects—Neandertals and early modern humans—had made the region home: delicious food, delightful climate, fascinating culture, and great beauty.

The Dordogne is a region that skipped industrialization, and so the mind can range freely as to what older lifeways were like, however far back you wish to go, anthropologically.

Dibble has dedicated his life to understanding Neandertal and early modern human behavior through systematic and innovative fieldwork and analytical techniques at several Paleolithic sites. He is joined in this effort by four other project directors: Dennis Sandgathe, a Paleolithic archaeologist from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (and, as it turned out, Dibble’s companion in the marketplace); Shannon McPherron Gr’94, a Paleolithic archaeologist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany; Alain Turq, the chief curator at the Musée National de Préhistoire des Eyzies, France; and Paul Goldberg, a geoarchaeologist from Boston University. While Dibble and the team work all around the Mediterranean, from Egypt to Morocco to France, the Dordogne is home central.

Through their combined work the team has arrived at interpretations of new and old data that turn the tables on what we thought we knew about Neandertals and ourselves.

The next day we agreed to meet for lunch at the Hotel-Restaurant Delpeyrat in Carsac, a village that has been Dibble’s home base since 2000. Sandgathe joined us.

Each spring the two fly to France and open up the small house they rent in Carsac and then take off for their dig in Morocco throughout May, returning to Carsac in early June to commence the dig season in France.

The site in Morocco, La Grotte des Contrabandiers, or Smugglers’ Cave, is a Middle and Upper Paleolithic cave occupied by early modern humans from 120,000 to 10,000 years ago. Curiously, it is also on the white truffle route, making me suspect that Dibble and Sandgathe pick their sites just as did our hominid ancestors, to be near gourmet food sources. Be that as it may, archaeologically speaking, the site provides a valuable window on early humans before they came in contact with Neandertals.

“There is a lot of debate about early modern physiology and behavior,” explained Dibble, “so [Smugglers’ Cave] allows us to look at a site contemporary with Neandertals in Europe but [located] in Africa,” where Neandertals did not live. This means that the “behaviors found in Africa will be exemplary of modern human behavior.”

Similarly, in their work in Abydos, Egypt, from 2000-2007, the team was looking for indications of what early modern behavior was like prior to contact with Neandertals “because at some point,” continued Dibble, “around 150,000 to 160,000 years ago, [early moderns] spread out from Africa. The Nile valley was a natural corridor out. We were trying to find more direct evidence. It’s important to make connections … Neandertals are different [from us] and therefore very interesting.”

As soon as we sat down to lunch, the restaurant owners, Philippe and Aline Delpeyrat, and their son and daughter, Aurelie and Sabastien, came out to greet us and to joust with Dibble and Sandgathe. Philippe proudly stated that he had known Dibble for 32 years. He also confirmed that the two archaeologists pull a practical joke on Restaurant Delpeyrat each year.

Aurelie went to the back and returned with a menu the family saved from two years ago. Opening to the house specialties, she pointed at a selection Dibble and Sandgathe had secretly slipped into the regular menu.

“Here it is,” she said, “Beans à la Dibble.” Its English translation described it as, “White beans simmered in secret base.” The day of the menu heist, Dibble and Sandgathe stationed themselves at a table for two along the back wall and watched the lunchtime drama unfold as people inquired what Beans à la Dibble was, exactly. The family was in stitches when they realized their menu had been hijacked. Philippe and Aline decided to improvise, asking Dibble how to make the dish, as some patrons were seriously thinking of ordering it. When pressed, he said, “It’s really a cassoulet with white beans, tomato paste, onions, sausage, stuff, you know, a basic cassoulet.”

“This year,” Aurelie Delpeyrat leaned over and confided, “we know something is going to happen, but we have no idea what it might be.” Dibble and Sandgathe innocently looked on as if they had no idea what she meant.

By the time lunch was over, Dibble had invited me to visit their recently excavated sites, Pech de l’Azé and Roc de Marsal, when they conducted a day of formal visits in early June upon their return from Morocco. The day was for the Societé préhistorique française, the French Prehistory Society, a group of around 300 professional archaeologists and amateur archaeology buffs.


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FEATURE: On Hearths, Ancient and Modern by Beebe Bahrami
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette

Harold Dibble in his lab, with the flintknapping machine he developed at Penn to mathematically map the angles, velocities, and distances that create a stone tool.

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