175,000-year-old underground Neanderthal stone circle

Structure discovered in 1990s is ten times older than Lascaux cave paintings

Bruniquel Cave in southwest France was discovered by members of a local caving club in 1990. The cave’s entrance had been sealed by a landslide during the last Ice Age, but the cavers re-opened a narrow 30m (100 ft.) passage leading into a main gallery of chambers rich in stalagmites and stalactites. Some 336 m (1,000 ft.) from the entrance, they found strange complex of stone circles, constructed from broken stalagmites. Intrigued by the discovery, the cavers brought in archaeologist Francois Rouzaud to investigate.

The complex comprises two circles measuring 6.7 × 4.5 m (22 ft. x 14 ft. 9 in.) and 2.2 × 2.1 m (7 ft. 3 in. x 6 ft. 10 in.) and four smaller stacks of stalagmites, two of which are located inside the larger circle. Around 400 stalagmite fragments were used in the construction, half of which are mid-sections with the tip and base removed. The fragments were standardised in length, leaving no doubt that the structures had been constructed by humans. All six structures show extensive traces of fire, with many of the fragments showing signs of either blackening or reddening.

Rouzaud recovered a burned bone from the largest structure, which was radiocarbon dated and found to be 47,600 years old. This predates the arrival of modern humans in the region, but not sufficiently to rule out the possibility that they were the builders. The only other possibility was Neanderthals – which in the 1990s, was viewed as unlikely. The slow-to-die perception of Neanderthals as dimwits was even more prevalent then. Sadly, before further investigations could be carried, Francois Rouzaud died suddenly, aged just 50. With his death, all work at Bruniquel Cave ceased, and the enigmatic stone circles were forgotten until they came to the attention of geologist Sophie Verheyden.

Verheyden was curious as to why nobody had attempted to date the stalagmites. 47,600 years is close to the useful limit of radiocarbon dating, but uranium series dating can go back much further, and speleothem is very amenable to this method. By applying it to calcite layers that had formed over the stalagmite fragments after the complex was built, it would be fairly straightforward to determine when they had been broken off from the floor of the cave. Verheyden assembled a multi-disciplinary team including archaeologist Jacques Jaubert and geologist Dominique Genty and in 2013, after obtaining permission to study the cave, they resumed the investigation.

The results are reported in the online edition of the journal Nature and they suggest that the Bruniquel Cave stone circles are 176,500 years old – ten times older than the cave paintings of Lascaux. There is not the slightest possibility that they were the work of modern humans, who would not arrive for another 130 millennia. The only hominins living in southwestern France at that time were Neanderthals. The attribution of the Bruniquel constructions to Neanderthals demonstrates that they possessed the sophistication and organisational skills to heat and light a deep underground cavern while they built and used an elaborate structure of a type never before seen elsewhere.

The obvious question now is was the function of these structures, located at such a great distance from the cave entrance? There is no evidence that the cave was used as a living habitat. Had the stone circles dated to the Upper Palaeolithic, nobody would have doubted that the complex was a ritual centre of some kind. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it served this function for its Neanderthal builders and as such is further evidence of their capacity for symbolic behaviour.

Jaubert, J. et al., Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature (Online edition) (2016).


130,000 year old Neanderthal eagle talon necklace predates H. sapiens influence

Does evidence from Krapina, Croatia refutes ‘bow wave’ theory?

The popular view of the Neanderthals as dimwits has been in trouble for years, as evidence for Neanderthal symbolic behaviour has continued to accumulate. Up until now, however, it is not been possible to unequivocally rule out the influence of modern humans, who reached Europe around 46,000 years ago. The Châtelperronian culture for example, long put forward as evidence of Neanderthal behavioural modernity, has now been shown not to have begun until after the arrival of modern humans. It is assumed that the Neanderthals simply borrowed the trappings of modernity from their new neighbours.

In other regions such as Spain and Italy, the evidence for Neanderthal behavioural modernity has been attributed to what Sir Paul Mellars has described as a ‘bow wave effect’, i.e. long-distance interactions between Neanderthals and modern humans occurring several millennia before the latter become visible in the archaeological record.

This view is now seriously challenged by a new study of eight white-tailed eagle talons that were found at the Neanderthal site of Krapina, Croatia over a century ago. Researchers found 21 cut marks on the talons, and there were areas of high polish consistent with ‘use wear’ as the talons rubbed against each other. The implication is that they were mounted in a necklace or bracelet – clear evidence of symbolic behaviour. Furthermore, it was concluded that the talons come from at least three eagles, suggesting that considerable effort had gone into obtaining them. The white-tailed eagle is fairly rare and it is an aggressive apex predator, far from easy to catch or trap.

Associated faunal remains suggested that Krapina dates to the warm Eemian interglacial period. A direct date of 130,000 years old was obtained in 1995 – which means that it predates any possible influence from modern humans by more than 80,000 years.

Radovčić, D., Sršen, A., Radovčić, J. & Frayer, D., 2015. Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina. PLoS One, 11 March.



Neanderthal rock engraving

Important evidence for symbolic behaviour from Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar

Archaeologists from the Gibraltar Caves project have found a rock engraving at Gorham’s Cave on the eastern side of Gibraltar. The deeply-etched cross-hatched pattern is carved into the dolomite bedrock of the cave, and was wholly-covered by an undisturbed archaeological level containing Mousterian artefacts. Thus its association with Neanderthals is secure.

The engraving is at least 39,000 years old and although modern humans were in Europe by that time, they had not yet reached the southern Iberian Peninsula. Furthermore, the Gibraltar rock engraving predates the earliest Aurignacian cave art, suggesting that it was an independent Neanderthal development.

Researchers carried out a number of tests to demonstrate that the engraving was intentional. They used a variety of tools and cutting actions on blocks of dolomite rock similar to the rock face at Gorham’s cave and found that results best matching the engraving were achieved by using a pointed tool to create and enlarge a groove. Considerable care and physical effort was required to produce similar markings. The researchers also used the sharp tools to cut pork skin on a dolomite slab to rule out the possibility that the pattern had been produced accidentally while cutting meat or working animal hides.

The Gorham’s Cave rock engraving is only the latest in a series of recent discoveries that clearly demonstrate that the Neanderthals were not the dimwits of popular imagination. It is possibly the strongest indication yet that they were capable of symbolic behaviour

Rodríguez-Vidal, J. et al., A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar. PNAS (Early edition) (2014).