51,000-Year-Old Bone Carving Suggests Neanderthals Were True Artists


Gizmodo 05 July, 2021 - 02:00pm 76 views

By Ryan Morrison For Mailonline

An engraved deer toe dating back 51,000 years is the oldest ornament in the world, according to researchers, who say it shows Neanderthals had an eye for aesthetics.

It was skilfully engraved with regularly spaced and neatly stacked chevrons say the team from Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage in Hannover, Germany.

The ancient ornament was discovered near the entrance of Unicorn Cave in the foothills of the Harz mountains in Germany by archaeologists.

It had a flat base for placing upright, suggesting it was a decoration, suggesting the image of Neanderthals as 'knuckle dragging brutes' is 'wide of the mark'.

MicroCt-scans of the engraved bone and interpretation of the six lines in red that shape the chevron symbol. Highlighted in blue is a set of sub-parallel lines

The modern cave entrance of Einhornhöhle (Unicorn Cave) showing a replica of the unicorn skele ton published in Protogaea, a book by the early palaeontologist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

Found in central Germany, the Unicorn Cave (Einhornhöhle) is the largest show cave in West Harz. 

It was first mentioned in 1541 in historic records, and was written about in more detail during the 17th century.

The cave was spoken about as a place where people would trade in unicorn artefacts.

According to legend fossilised bones said to be from unicorns were ground and used in medicine during the 16th and 17th century.

Gottfried Leibniz visited the cave and wrote a report on the trade.

Later he created a fictional reconstruction of a unicorn skeleton based on bones found in the cave - published in his book Protagaea. 

The cave was excavated in 1872 where the unknown bones belonged to a range of extinct animals including mammoths and cave bears. 

By 1905 it had been made accessible to visitors and opened for tourism. 

The chevrons in the bone, which would have been boiled before carving to make it softer, suggest it had 'symbolic meaning' and was a pre-meditated artistic work. 

Study leader Dr Dirk Leder said: 'It is an outstanding example of their cognitive capacity. The engraved bone is unique in the context of Neanderthals.

'What makes the item so interesting is the pattern is very clear and the engravings are very deep. It would have taken some 90 minutes to carve the chevrons.'

There are six individual lines carved into the bones, suggesting there must have been the idea to combine them in a coherent way.  

The notches carved into the bone are between half an inch and an inch long and set at a 90 degree angle, meaning they 'are not butchery type cuts,' said Dr Leder.  

'It shows Neanderthals were capable of advanced and complex behaviours - including producing artistic impressions,' he added.

'The engraving of individual lines into a chevron design is indicative of conceptual imagination.'

The artefact is about two and a quarter inches tall, one and a half inches wide and weighs just over an ounce.

Dr Leder said: 'Giant deer were rare north of the Alps at this time - reinforcing the idea the engraving had symbolic meaning.

'This finding adds to growing evidence of sophisticated behaviour by the extinct species.' 

The carved bone was found near Unicorn Cave, where treasure hunters have searched for evidence of unicorns since the 15th century. 

The ancient ornament was discovered near the entrance of Unicorn Cave in the foothills of the Harz mountains in Germany by archaeologists

It lies along the northernmost boundary of the world once occupied by Neanderthals, who hunted large mammals, as seen from the remains of cave bears - including a skull and two shoulder blades. 

Bison and red deer were also dug up, including a species whose antlers would grow up to 5ft long and span a massive 12ft, the largest of any deer. 

Known scientifically as Megaloceros giganteus, it was seven foot tall at the shoulder and had four long toes on each foot, one of which was used in this artwork.

Microscopic analysis and experimental replication showed the beast's bone was first boiled in hot water - to make etching simpler, which Dr Leder says would make it easier to carve with stone tools. 

The former cave entrance where the engraved item was recovered from. The item was found about 1 m behind the person holding the staff

Engraved giant deer toe dates from the Middle Palaeolithic and included six lines engraved

'This means there was a plan behind all these necessary steps from hunting the animal to boiling the bone - and engraving it,' he explained.

Using CT scans and 3D-digital microscopy, the researchers found the cuts were made with razor sharp stone flakes rather than hand axes.

Studies revealed no evidence that the engraved object was used as a pendant or put on a string to be worn on the body - it was an ornament.  

Art created by early Homo sapiens has been found across Africa and Eurasia, but no similar examples of artwork have been found from Neanderthals.

'Our findings show they were capable of creating symbolic expressions before Homo sapiens arrived in Central Europe,' said Dr Leder.  

The bone would have been boiled first to make it easier to carve using stone tools, study shows

3D digital microscopy images of the carved bone was used by the researchers to understand more about how deep and regular the lines were made

Plan and section drawing of the former cave entrance area. The carved bone was found among the cave bear bones in the north west

Dr Silvia Bello, of London's Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the study, said humans interbred with Homo sapiens 50,000 years ago.

'We cannot exclude a similarly early exchange of knowledge between modern human and Neanderthal populations, which may have influenced the production of the engraved artefact,' she said.

But that would not undervalue their intelligence - and perhaps rank it even higher.

Dr Bello added: 'On the contrary, the capacity to learn, integrate innovation into one's own culture and adapt to new technologies and abstract concepts should be recognised as an element of behavioural complexity.

Greyscale images were generated via micro-CT scanning. Study leader Dr Dirk Leder said: 'It is an outstanding example of their cognitive capacity. The engraved bone is unique in the context of Neanderthals'

 The chevrons in the bone, which would have been boiled before carving to make it softer, suggest it had 'symbolic meaning' and was a pre-meditated artistic work

'In this context, the engraved bone from Unicorn Cave brings Neanderthal behaviour even closer to the modern behaviour of Homo sapiens.'

Neanderthals are known to have used pigments, buried objects alongside their dead and collected bird feathers and claws.

They are also signs of habits once considered entirely unique to Homo sapiens.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The Neanderthals were a close human ancestor that mysteriously died out around 40,000 years ago.

The species lived in Africa with early humans for millennia before moving across to Europe around 300,000 years ago.

They were later joined by humans, who entered Eurasia around 48,000 years ago.  

The Neanderthals were a cousin species of humans but not a direct ancestor - the two species split from a common ancestor -  that perished around 50,000 years ago. Pictured is a Neanderthal museum exhibit

These were the original 'cavemen', historically thought to be dim-witted and brutish compared to modern humans.

In recent years though, and especially over the last decade, it has become increasingly apparent we've been selling Neanderthals short.

A growing body of evidence points to a more sophisticated and multi-talented kind of 'caveman' than anyone thought possible.

It now seems likely that Neanderthals had told, buried their dead, painted and even interbred with humans.   

They used body art such as pigments and beads, and they were the very first artists, with Neanderthal cave art (and symbolism) in Spain apparently predating the earliest modern human art by some 20,000 years.

They are thought to have hunted on land and done some fishing. However, they went extinct around 40,000 years ago following the success of Homo sapiens in Europe.  

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A tiny bone is changing how we think about Neanderthals

CNN 05 July, 2021 - 04:04pm

Updated 12:51 PM ET, Mon July 5, 2021

A 51,000 year-old carved bone is one of the world's oldest works of art, researchers say

NBC News 05 July, 2021 - 04:04pm

The discovery is further evidence that Neanderthals — Homo neanderthalensis — were capable of expressing symbolism through art — something once attributed only to our own species, Homo sapiens.

“This is clearly not a pendant or something like that,” said Thomas Terberger, a professor and prehistoric archaeologist at the University of Göttingen, who co-authored a study of the object published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. “It’s clearly a decoration with a kind of symbolic character… you might even call it the initial start of art, something which was not done by accident, but with a clear plan in mind.”

The bone was unearthed in a cave in the Harz Mountains of central Germany, about 150 miles southwest of Berlin. The front of it is carved with overlapping chevrons — lines in the shape of an inverted V — that appear to point upwards, and archaeologists have also discerned a line of smaller incisions on its lower edge, which seems to have served as its base.

“We were trying it out, and this object can stand alone on its base, it doesn’t shake or tip over or anything,” said archaeologist Dirk Leder of the Lower Saxony state office for Cultural Heritage, who led the excavations that discovered the bone. “It was probably left standing upright in a corner of the cave.”

The carved bone was unearthed alongside the shoulder blade bones of deer and the intact skull of a cave bear — rare objects that may have indicated the assemblage had ritual meaning, he said.

Radiocarbon dating has established that the bone is 51,000 years old — older than any comparable works of art attributed to Neanderthals.

Archaeologists have also found ancient eagle talons used as pendants by Neanderthals, and cave paintings in Spain that may be older, but their date is disputed, Terberger said: “In this case, for the first time, we have a reliably dated object.”

The Einhornhöhle — or “Unicorn Cave” —  where the carved bone was unearthed has been famous since at least the 16th century and is now a tourist attraction. It got its name from the fossilized bones found there, supposedly from unicorns, that were once ground up to make medicines.

Excavations since the 1980s have established that the cave was inhabited by successive generations of Neanderthals, from at least 130,000 years ago until about 47,000 years ago.

Later groups of Homo sapiens also inhabited the cave, but only much later, after about 12,000 years ago, Leder said. The earliest evidence for Homo sapiens in the southeast of Europe is from about 45,000 years ago, and it’s not thought they arrived in central Europe until at least 10,000 years after that, he said.

The archaeologists can only guess at the meanings of the carvings, and if they have any meaning at all. “This is quite unique,” Leder said. “We don’t see it anywhere in the Paleolithic literature.”

“We were discussing different interpretations…  the shape could be like a female figurine with the head and the chest part, but then the chevron pattern to some of us looked like three mountains in a row — a landscape view,” he said.

Microscopic analysis of the bone shows the carvings are very deep, which suggests it was boiled to soften it before carving. The species of prehistoric deer that the bone was from was also rare in the region at the time and extremely large, which could suggest the artwork had special importance, he said.

The discovery is more evidence that Neanderthals were not just dumb cavemen, as scientists once believed, but were capable of artistic or symbolic expression — something once thought to be unique to Homo sapiens, said Bruce Hardy, a professor anthropology at Kenyon University in Ohio, who was not involved in the latest study.

But it’s likely that a lot of Neanderthal artistic objects were carved into wood — a much easier medium to work with than stone or bone — that has now perished after many thousands of years, he said. 

The fact that there was increasing evidence of symbolic artistic expression by Neanderthals, as well as by later Homo sapiens, suggested the hominin species that were the ancestors of both were also artistic, he said.

“If those two different groups also share a common ancestor, chances are that common ancestor also has some degree of symbolic ability as well, which means it goes much further back,” he said.

Hardy’s own research has included the discovery of what seems to be a piece of Neanderthal string — a Stone Age technology not seen before. 

Archaeologist Andrew Sorensen of Leiden University in the Netherlands said that the analysis of the marks on the bone show they can’t have been the result of random gnawing by carnivores.

“The relatively regular angles of the intersecting lines is particularly convincing that these marks were created intentionally by Neanderthals,” he wrote in an email.

The possibility that the bone had been boiled to make it easier to work with was especially interesting, he said. His own research focuses on the use of fire by Neanderthals, which is also seen as evidence of their ability to use relatively advanced technologies.2

Tom Metcalfe writes about science and space for NBC News.

Ancient bone carving could change the way we think about Neanderthals

Phys.org 05 July, 2021 - 04:04pm

The vast majority of Stone-Age artworks discovered in Europe are attributed to Homo sapiens and experts have long suggested that Neanderthals, among our closest relatives, only began creating symbolic objects after mixing with them.

But using radiocarbon dating, archaeologists determined the recently-unearthed artifact to be at least 51,000 years old—pre-dating the arrival of Homo sapiens in central Europe by some 10,000 years, according to the research published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

"The cultural influence of H. sapiens as the single explanatory factor for abstract cultural expressions in Neanderthals can no longer be sustained," the study says.

Dirk Leder, one of the authors and a researcher at the Lower Saxony Office for Heritage Department of Archaeology, told AFP that the bone clearly represents a means of expression.

"We are very convinced that communicates an idea, a story, something meaningful to a group," he said.

The carved fossil was found at a well-known archaeological site called Einhornhoehle—or "Unicorn Cave".

Located in the mountains of central Germany, treasure hunters searched there as early as the Middle Ages for what they believed to be unicorn fossils.

It was in the 1980s that scientists first found evidence of an Ice Age Neanderthal settlement at Einhornhoehle and the new bone is from a dig under a collapsed entrance to the cave where artifacts were discovered in 2017.

The bone, from the foot of a rare extinct giant deer, is about half the size of a deck of playing cards (about 5.5 centimetres long, 4 centimetres wide) and three centimetres thick.

Six diagonal intersecting lines intentionally carved into it form a kind of chevron design that covers much of one surface.

"The item is of no practical use," notes the study.

"Instead, the geometric pattern itself constitutes the central element."

The study reports that a series of experiments attempting to re-create the object using cow bones shows that it was probably boiled once or twice before it was sculpted with flint.

"The complex production process leading to the creation of the incisions, their systematic arrangement and the scarcity of giant deer north of the Alps, support the notion of an intentional act and of symbolic meaning," the study says.

The researchers said that a few discoveries from the same period attributed to Neanderthals include flint pieces, bedrock and teeth intentionally marked with cross-hatch or zig-zag marks.

The deer bone, however, stands out as "one of the most complex cultural expressions in Neanderthals known so far", it says.

Leder said that unlike the art of Homo sapiens the various marked objects attributed to Neanderthals are not really comparable to each other, perhaps because their populations lived in smaller, more spread-out clusters.

"It seems to support the idea that within the population communicating with these things, the meaning of the symbols was not transmitted to the next generation or just died out," he said.

But the fact that the new find predates Homo sapiens means Neanderthals might have left a more enduring legacy.

"The idea was always that the great Homo sapiens was giving intelligent ideas to other species," said Leder.

"In the past few years a handful of papers are pushing the idea that it could have been other way around," he said.

In June, scientists made another discovery that could fundamentally alter our understanding of human evolution: the skull of a large-brained male that was preserved almost perfectly for more than 140,000 years.

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Neanderthals boiled and carved a deer bone 51,000 years ago, archaeologists say

Haaretz 05 July, 2021 - 04:04pm

Apparently Neanderthals were the only homo species in Germany 51,000 years ago, but by then they had mixed with Homo sapiens, so the muse behind this early art remains enigmatic

Around 51,000 years ago, somebody in Germany softened the toe bone of a giant deer by boiling it, then carved stacked chevrons onto it, archaeologists reported Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The question is, who? In their article, Dirk Leder, Thomas Terberger and colleagues explain that the unique artifact had been found at what had been the entrance to a cave in Einhornhöhle, northern Germany, and categorically identify the ancient artist as Neanderthal.

If so, it would add to indications of cultural complexity and symbolic ability in the Neanderthal, they explain.

In favor of that identification, it seems Neanderthals were the only human species in that part of Europe and Einhornhöhle specifically at the time. From that perspective, the interpretation that the engraver belonged to that hominin type would be suitably parsimonious.

Lead author Leder, of the State Service for Cultural Heritage Lower Saxony in Hannover, is confident: “The engraved bone from Einhornhöhle was made by Neanderthals,” he tells Haaretz.

It is true that no Neanderthal bones have been found at Einhornhöhle, but they have at the nearby site of Salzgitter-Lebenstedt and also at Weimar-Ehringsdorf, he adds.

If Neanderthal the artist was, it was a late Neanderthal. Fossil evidence suggests that when the bone was carved, Neanderthals were the predominant human species in Europe and thronged prehistoric Germany. But that seems to have been their peak. (This article will not bog down on what “species” means; Neanderthals and Homo sapiens – and others such as the Denisovans – could be perceived as variants within a single species.)

However, the questions hovering here go beyond what art is. We can also ask: What is a Neanderthal?

The Homo neanderthalensis variant arose in Europe about 200,000 years ago, possibly from origins in the Middle East and possibly even in Israel itself.

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had clearly been meeting and mating going back far before somebody carved these chevrons in prehistoric Germany. Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had vibrant hybrid children; Neanderthals gained sapiens genes and we gained some of theirs. Somewhere between a negligible amount to about 2 percent of your genome derives from them.

Of minor note: We cannot be categorically confident that the late Neanderthals of Late Stone Age Germany really were alone, species-wise. There could have been others running around that we don’t know about yet.

Of major note: Anatomically modern humans had been leaving Africa for 150,000 years by the time this deer died and had a foot turned into art; and genetic evidence shows Neanderthals and modern humans met and interbred multiple times, including over 50,000 years ago.

Which means? That the artist could theoretically have been a hybrid, equipped with a set of human skills.

Even if the artist didn’t have much sapiens contribution, “We cannot exclude a similarly early exchange of knowledge between modern human and Neanderthal populations,” writes Silvia Bello of London’s Natural History Museum, in an opinion published in parallel with the main article. 

In other words, modern humans and Neanderthals rubbing shoulders and likely other body parts could have “influenced” the production of engraved toe bone from Einhornhöhle, Bello points out.

Leder is not convinced. Modern humans only reached Europe and central Europe thousands of years after this deer passed onto the great void, he says, “so we are confident in excluding an influence by Homo sapiens.”

But while on mysteries, the archaeologists deduced that the deer toe bone had been boiled before being carved. Boiling a bone makes it softer.

But how did Neanderthals boil anything? The very earliest pottery wouldn’t be invented for tens of thousands of years. The very earliest ceramic pot seems to have been developed in China and/or Japan a bit under 20,000 years ago (and wouldn’t reach the Levant for another 10,000 years or so, and Europe even later).

So how did the Neanderthals or anybody boil a deer foot 51,000 years ago? And why?

“That is correct, Neanderthals did not have pots. Unfortunately, the question of cooking procedures is largely unresolved in Paleolithic research,” Leder says. “Some suggestions have been made about skin-lined pits filled with water that was then brought to boiling temperature using fire-heated stones.”

On the downside for that theory, this skin-pit-technique has been shown only for much later sites, he qualifies – younger than 20,000 years. On the upside, experiments have shown this method works incredibly well. Back on downside, we seldom find any pits in Neanderthal sites, he says. Clearly, Neanderthals were cooking their food, as we know from dental analyses and faunal studies. But how remains unclear, he adds.

As for why they did so, one might assume they used the foot to make soup à la chicken feet – that’s what we do with them, usually. Why else would anybody boil a bone?

Leder, however, points out that the nutritious value of a toe bone is fairly low. “The minimal bit of bone marrow that it contains would not justify the effort,” he says. “Also, we have no indication at the site that Neanderthals cracked bones open to extract bone marrow. So we can confidently say that Neanderthals at Einhornhöhle defleshed their prey and processed the meat, but did not care much about products with lower nutritious value. Quite likely they also ate vegetal food too.”

Indeed, the evidence has been mounting that, in contrast to the Neanderthals-as-basically-a-carnivore image, following in the steps of the mega-predatory Homo erectus, it seems Neanderthals ate carbs and greens as well. One wonders if they boiled their veg with deer feet to improve the flavor.

It is also possible that the bone had been boiled in order to render it easier to decorate.

The same miasma of uncertain provenance could be said to shroud the most famed example of putative Neanderthal art, which was found in caves in Spain and Portugal.

Like in the case of the deer toe, the art in question was not figurative but was clearly symbolic. A cave in Maltravieso, western Spain, features hand stencils that are 66,000 years old, while the La Pasiega Cave in Cantabria sports a ladder form drawn in red dated to 64,000 years ago.

Again, the only folks known for sure to occupy that part of the world at the time were Neanderthals and, yet again, we have to wonder if they really were alone – and if they were, if they had exposure to modern humans with their newfangled ways.

The fact remains that the explosion of figurative artistic expression only appeared in Europe and Asia together with the arrival of modern humans. At this point, the earliest figurative art we know is in Southeast Asia: Drawings of pigs and other animals found in Sulawesi that were made about 45,500 years ago by, the archaeologists are confident, Homo sapiens.

It is possible that Neanderthals were perfectly capable of symbolic expression and complex behavior. Evidence for that has been mounting, but no smoking pig has been found on a cave wall with a categorical Neanderthal stamp on it to date.

Leder confirms that in the Neanderthal context, no figurative art or carvings comparable to these chevrons have yet been found. “The find from Einhornhöhle is unique,” he says. Chevrons have not been found at other Paleolithic sites in Europe, and the selection of a giant deer toe bone is also particular to Einhornhöhle. 

Asked whether he thinks the artist could have been a hybrid, or culturally influenced, Leder answers: “This is a complex topic that could be approached from various angles. Neanderthals could have taught Homo sapiens how to communicate via symbols instead, or cultural exchange between the two groups might have been responsible for that novel behavior. Also, there is no continuous evidence for the presence of Homo sapiens [in Germany] between 200,000-plus years ago and about 45,000 years ago, so that direct influence seems unlikely.”

Moving on from who carved the bone to the deer itself, the toe bone came from a species called the giant deer Megaloceros giganteus, which went extinct about 7,700 years ago. The last of its kind was apparently in western Russia.

The Irish call it the Irish deer, and it was first identified there. But in fact it lived all over Eurasia and, as Bambi goes, it was a monster. The animal stood nearly 7 feet tall (2.1 meters) at the shoulder and had a set of antlers that could be 12 feet in span. Artistic reconstructions frankly make the animal look possessed but whatever the look in its eye, this was one impressive deer.

Which leads the authors to speculate that the choice of the toe bone, from that deer, not some other local herbivore, had special meaning.

Even then, giant deer had become rare north of the Alps. The Neanderthals and other pre-sapiens hominins may have indeed harbored a respect for the rare and extraordinary of the animal kingdom. Potential examples abound: archaeologists report Neanderthals apparently cherishing eagle feathers in Spain; Neanderthals in Zaskalnaya, Crimea adorned themselves with raptor talons and feathers; and even beforehand, at Qesem Cave, a Paleolithic site occupied on and off from about 420,000 years to 200,000 years ago, hominins living there seem to have been collecting feathers. Neanderthals also seem to have buried their dead ritually, at least sometimes (it is far from clear it was a regular habit).

So behavioral complexity was there, but the question of whether the Neanderthal was capable of creating art, absent a contribution from sapiens, remains open.

“The possibility of an acquired knowledge from modern humans doesn’t undervalue … the cognitive abilities of the Neanderthals,” Bello writes. If anything, the ability to integrate innovation into one’s own culture should be recognized as behavioral complexity. And if Neanderthals really did carve those chevrons on a deer toe bone that they boiled, somehow, it brings them even closer to us.

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Were Neanderthals making ‘art’ in Europe’s fabled Unicorn Cave?

National Geographic 05 July, 2021 - 04:04pm

A chess-sized piece of bone crafted before modern humans are believed to have arrived in the area sparks questions about artistic expression beyond Homo sapiens.

More recently, on a warm summer day in 2019, Gabriele Russo sat outside Unicorn Cave, marveling at another mysterious bone in his hand.

About the size of a chess piece, it was carved with 10 deep, slanting lines on one side. Russo, a University of Tübingen archaeozoologist who specializes in identifying animals from the distant past based on their bones, immediately recognized it as a phalange—more precisely, the second knuckle bone of a large hoofed animal. On closer examination, he noticed something odd: The cuts didn’t look like the hacking of a butcher trying to extract meat or marrow. These marks appeared intentional, like an abstract pattern or decorative design.

When Thomas Terberger and Dirk Leder—archaeologists at the University of Göttingen who direct excavations at Unicorn Cave—saw the incised knuckle bone, they were impressed but not surprised. Research in and around the cave since 2014 has turned up ample tools and artifacts showing that its caverns were used by early modern humans and their Neanderthal ancestors. The archaeologists assumed the bone was a decorative piece carved by an Ice-Age human, not a Neanderthal, and that radiocarbon dating would likely support their assumption.

Then the dating results on the mysterious bone came back from the lab.

 In a paper published today in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, an international team of researchers report that radiocarbon dating shows the carving is at least 51,000 years old, meaning it was created at least a thousand years before modern humans arrived there. (Modern humans are believed to have entered this part of Europe no more than 45,000 to 50,000 years ago.)

The authors argue the bone could have been carved only by Neanderthals, and that it represents the first time Neanderthal symbolic expression—some call it art—has been directly dated. The discovery gives researchers reason to reevaluate the old assumption that Neanderthals were incapable of creativity or complex thought.

“It’s an idea, a planned motif that you have in your mind and translate into reality,” Terberger says, referring to the pattern on the bone. “It’s the start of culture, the start of abstract thinking, the birth of art.”

As anyone familiar with arguments about abstract painting and modern art knows, “art” is in the eye of the beholder. For many, it’s a distinctly modern concept—something with symbolic meaning to the maker and the audience, made to be enjoyed or appreciated for the way it looks. The definition of art can shift from culture to culture, and even decade to decade.

That makes it tricky to talk about what Neanderthals were hoping to achieve when they carved a design on a piece of bone. “Today, we usually mean art in a visual, aesthetic sense, and we don’t know if that’s what was meaningful to them,” says Amy Chase, a paleoanthropologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland who did not participate in the research. “It’s difficult to label something made 50,000 years ago with our own concepts.”

Symbolic expression, on the other hand, is easier to recognize and agree on. From the choice of animal species to the orientation of the cut lines—angling upward when you set the bone on its flat, stable end—the long-gone carver of the Unicorn Cave bone was making deliberate choices that seem to have had specific meaning. “It’s the first step towards art,” Terberger says. “When you’re communicating with complex design and symbols, you are at the border of what we would call art—or already there.”

Credible evidence for anything that could be called Neanderthal “art”—even simple doodles—is incredibly rare. This fact has led generations of researchers to conclude our distant relatives were uninterested in symbolic or decorative representations at best, and incapable of creative thinking at worst.

And what scant evidence there is—geometric decorations on a cave wall in Spain, eagle talons buried with dead Neanderthals in Croatia—hasn’t been directly dated. Instead, archaeologists have relied on estimates based on the ages of bones found nearby, or on chemical analyses of cave walls, leaving room for doubt as to the object’s true age.

While a direct radiocarbon date from the incised bone left no question as to the artifact’s age, researchers also tried to replicate the carvings to ensure that the marks weren’t the accidental byproduct of butchering, or idle scratches by a bored Neanderthal killing time by the campfire.

The bone belonged to a giant deer, Megaloceros giganteus, a behemoth that stood seven feet at the shoulder, weighed as much as a small car, and was rarely found north of the Alps. Giant deer went extinct more than 7,000 years ago, so Leder and University of Göttingen experimental archaeologist Raphael Hermann sourced fresh cow bones—a close match—and replica flint blades.

After weeks of experimentation, they determined that the carvings were best replicated on bone that was repeatedly boiled and dried, and that each cut took at least 10 minutes to carve and used up one or two valuable flint blades. “A lot of process and thinking went into this,” says Hermann.

“If you take the time to modify bone with a non-utilitarian motif, you’re doing it for some reason. Some Neanderthal took the time to carve these patterns into a deer phalange, and that was intentional,” says Kenyon College archaeologist Bruce Hardy, who was not involved with the research. “If you add it to the other evidence, you’re seeing accumulating evidence for symbolic behavior.”

John Shea, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York, disagrees, and suggests the Unicorn Cave bone could be a sinker for a fishing line, a spool for thread, or some other utilitarian tool we’re unfamiliar with at a remove of 50,000 years. “That one cannot identify the function doesn’t mean the object is a symbol,” Shea says. “With a couple minutes of thought, there are alternatives to the symbolic interpretation.”

“When humans use symbols, they show up all over the place,” he adds. “Neanderthals are doing something different, if they are using symbols at all.”

Further complicating matters is the fact that modern humans and Neanderthals, however briefly, overlapped in time and space. Because some of the finds researchers have identified as Neanderthal symbolic expression or art seem to date from right around the time humans arrived on the scene in Europe, researchers have argued Homo neanderthalensis were just capable copycats, reproducing and imitating the creative output of their newly-arrived Homo sapiens cousins rather than creating art or symbols of their own.

The Unicorn Cave find, however, predates the arrival of modern humans in Europe, making it a distinctly Neanderthal object, researchers assert. (An accompanying essay by paleoanthropologist Silvia Bello in Nature Ecology and Evolution, however, notes recent genetic evidence that points to an earlier arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe, and says the possibility that the artifact was indeed influenced by modern humans, albeit remote, should not be rejected.)

Even Terberger admits, however, that there’s a huge gap between the creative output of modern humans and that of Neanderthals. “For early modern humans, objects like this are a normal part of their material culture,” he says. “For Neanderthals, they only produced such items from time to time. There are thousands of Neanderthal sites worldwide, and about 10 where we can talk about artistic expression."

The cave likely owes its name to the 17th-century scientist Gottfried Leibniz, who reconstructed an odd-looking “unicorn” out of a cave bear skull and wooly mammoth tusks and vertebrae from the site—a monstrous mash-up that that has become the cave’s mascot. In a typical year, 30,000 visitors file through the cool, vaulted halls of Unicorn Cave, which is located inside Germany’s largest UNESCO Geopark. It’s been used for fashion shoots and as a set for film and TV (including the Netflix series “Dark”) and the occasional gothic metal music video.

The most recent search for evidence of the cave’s deep past began in the 1980s, when paleontologist Ralf Nielbock convinced the local cooperative that owns the cave to let him open it as a tourist attraction. While enlarging dirt pathways inside the cave for anticipated visitors, he found unusual tool-shaped stones that convinced him Neanderthals once dwelt in the cave, but lack of funding forced him to pause his initial excavations for nearly two decades.

In 2014, Nielbock reached out to researchers at the nearby University of Göttingen to see if they’d be interested in excavating. Terberger and Leder brought in a team of archaeologists to focus on the original entrance to the cave, which collapsed around 10,000 years ago.

Soon one team was working its way in from the outside as another worked deep inside the cave, excavating in a tunnel-like space that once was part of the cave mouth. In 2019, they began finding stone tools and animal bones—including the curiously carved deer bone—dating back 50,000 years or more, a time when the area was free of glacial ice.

Last summer, Russo found more of the giant deer’s remains, along with the bones of a few red deer and bison. But so far, the team has found no direct evidence—such as campfires or burned bones in the layer around the carved bone—that Neanderthals occupied the site.

One possibility is that the cave was used for a very short period of time, to drag the carcass there and extract the meat, Russo says. But the excavations are in early days, and they have found bits of charcoal nearby, so future work might uncover the remains of a campsite or rock shelter in the wreckage of the collapsed cave.

A variety of evidence from the Unicorn Cave excavations, including animal bones and pollen, indicate that Neanderthals living there would have been on the frontier of habitable Europe. To the north was trackless ice and snow, and winters would have been cruel. Different mixes of plants and animals over time suggest an unpredictable climate.

“This period of climatic instability is when the piece was made,” Leder says. “Within this time frame, we have really quick changes, from forests to more open, reindeer-favoring environments.”

“Neanderthals here are at their northern limits, and also dealing with shifting environmental conditions,” he adds. “That might have forced them to become more dynamic and creative.”

Combined with other evidence, the Unicorn Cave bone builds the case for Neanderthals having a rich inner life of their own. 

“This is a significant find,” paleontologist Chase says. 

“It has the ability to shift the field away from a constant comparison of what they could do compared to modern humans, and let the Neanderthals be the main characters in their own story.”

Neanderthals Engraved This Ancient Giant Deer Bone Found In 'Unicorn Cave'

VICE 05 July, 2021 - 04:04pm

For decades, debates have raged over the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals relative to H. sapiens, especially their capacity to independently produce art or engage in symbolic behavior. Now, archaeologists have made a major breakthrough in this field with the discovery of a toe bone from an extinct giant deer that was intricately engraved by Neanderthals more than 51,000 years ago in Germany, before the arrival of our own species in the region.

The engraved bone was found at the mouth of the cave Einhornhöhle (“Unicorn Cave”), which got its name from 16th century rumors that its caverns contained unicorn fossils. It opens a tantalizing window into the symbolic world inhabited by our close cousins, according to researchers led by Dirk Leder, an archaeologist at the State Service for Cultural Heritage Lower Saxony, who announced the discovery on Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The toe bone (or phalanx), which belonged to the enormous deer species Megaloceros giganteus, was found with a mass of cave bear fossils during recent excavations at Einhornhöhle. Once the specimen had been meticulously cleaned, Leder and his colleagues were able to identify its captivating carvings as five stacked offset chevron patterns. The bone may have been boiled to soften it so that it could be more easily etched with a saw-like tool. 

“Before we discovered the engraved bone, we had already excavated some animal bones (red deer, bison) with cut marks, i.e. accidental marks caused during the butchering process,” Leder said in an email. “When we were able to have a first glimpse at the engraved bone before proper cleaning and conservation, we could only see a single engraving that appeared more like a hacking mark rather than a shallow cut.” 

“Only when the object was fully cleaned could we clearly see the arranged chevron pattern and after a short debate, we were convinced this must be intentional and probably bears symbolic meaning,” he said.

The lack of an obvious practical function for the bone supports this interpretation, as does the use of a phalanx from this giant deer species, which was not commonly found in the area at the time.

“The use of a giant deer phalanx—a very impressive herbivore—as raw material emphasizes the special character of the modified item, particularly given the paucity of giant deer [55,000 to 35,000 years ago] north of the Alps, which further supports the notion of symbolic meaning,” the researchers noted in the study.

“A designation as a premeditated object that had symbolic meaning is thus the most plausible interpretation for the incised bone,” they added.

Our own human ancestors produced an abundance of artwork, personal adornment, and evidence of abstract thought, which has enabled scientists to trace our imaginative abilities deep into the past. For this reason, Leder and his colleagues weren’t initially sure whether the deer bone was crafted by Neanderthals or H. sapiens.

To shed light on that question, the team conducted radiocarbon dating on the phalanx, which revealed that the object is at least 51,000 years old. The earliest evidence for H. sapiens in this region of Central Europe, meanwhile, dates back some 43,000 years. This timeline is extremely important because it supports the notion that Neanderthals developed symbolic behavior independently from H. sapiens, rather than simply adopting these rituals through interactions with our species. 

“Only when we received the radiocarbon date some months later, there was this ‘Eureka!’ moment when all the puzzle pieces came together,” Leder said.

The newly discovered deer phalanx is not the only example of similar symbolic behavior in Neanderthals, but it is a rare and astonishing piece of craftsmanship from an era when our cousins were the dominant humans in Central Europe. As a result, the bone reveals “important new information” about symbolic thought in Neanderthals, demonstrating that “the cultural influence of H. sapiens as the single explanatory factor for abstract cultural expressions in Neanderthals can no longer be sustained,” according to the study.

This rare find illuminates our understanding of Neanderthals, but it also raises many new questions, such as what its exact function or meaning was to its creators. This problem is “difficult to answer,” Leder said.

“As we outlined in the publication, we applied cutting edge high-tech (micro-CT-scans, 3D digital microscopy) to detect any telling evidence for the wearing of the object as a pendant on a string or as a bodily ornament,” he noted. “These results were inconclusive.” 

“What is, however, interesting is the fact that this object stands on its base, so to us it seems quite possible that Neanderthals left this object behind at Einhornhöhle for display and similar purposes,” Leder added.

The archaeologists plan to continue excavations as Einhornhöhle in search of other engraved items that might be stashed in the cave. These efforts could help to reconstruct the broader story of symbolic expression in various human species, from the abstract patterns shown in this deer bone and other artistic works of its period, to the spectacular paintings of animals and human figures that appear thousands of years later in the caves of France and Spain, which are more clearly linked to H. sapiens.

“To me, this bears the question of what this means in terms of human cognitive evolution, which takes us back to one of the most essential questions that archaeology (among other disciplines) aims to address—how humans became human,” Leder concluded.

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