The MNHN’s collection of palaeontological remains is renowned for its original fossils from the European Palaeolithic, including Cro-Magnons and a number of Neanderthals that were discovered in France.
The collection consists of more than 600 original human fossil remains from diverse locations and time periods.
This includes notably:
- Famous Neanderthals: La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze), La Ferrassie (Dordogne), La Quina (Charente), Malarnaud (Ariège), the Pech de l’Azé child (Dordogne);
- Humans from the Middle Palaeolithic: Fontéchevade (Charente), Montmaurin (Haute-Garonne);
- Humans from the Upper Palaeolithic: Cro-Magnon shelter, Pataud shelter, Laugerie-Basse, La Madeleine, complete skeleton from Menton;
- Fossil humans from the Far East (Tam Hang, Laos, etc.).
Add to that a vast collection of Neolithic skeletons discovered at various French sites (Abbeville, Almières, Les Baumes-Chaudes, L’Homme Mort, Les Mureaux, the Petit Morin Valley, Pinterville, Port-Blanc, Sauveterre, Vendrest, etc.) and Asian sites (Som Ron Sen in Cambodia, Cau Giat, Lang Cuom, Pho Binh Gia in Vietnam, etc.).
A few historical pieces sparked scientific controversy before being considered as recent: the Biscordine, Clichy, Grenelle, Moulin-Quignon, etc.
There are also a thousand casts of fossil bones that are used for comparative research and the teaching of human palaeontology.
It wasn’t until the 1830s that the notion of fossil humans was even reluctantly accepted. Following a number of polemical publications and especially after the 1859 publication of Darwin’s first book and the work of Boucher de Perthes (1788-1868), who founded prehistoric anthropology, there was a surge in research that led to the collection of numerous vestiges including bones, stone tools and ceramics. In 1868, the chance discovery of Cro-Magnon skeletons revealed that anatomically modern humans co-inhabited with extinct species like mammoths, nearly 30,000 years ago. Forty years later, the first relatively complete Neanderthal skeleton was dig up in a small cave at Chapelle-aux-Saints in Corrèze. When prehistorians determined that it had been entombed, it came as a shock. At the time, the skeleton’s appearance was considered primitive (it is roughly 60,000 years old). A few months later, several more Neanderthal tombs were discovered at the La Ferrassie site in Dordogne, and they too joined the MNHN collections.
The fossil collection is actively used for anthropological research and studies, every month drawing researchers from around the world. State-of-the-art techniques like scanner imagery and molecular biology, which make it possible to retrieve ancient DNA, are applied to these remains, which have already left their mark on the history of human palaeontology.