The toe bone of a prehistoric deer carved in lines by Neanderthals 51,000 years ago is one of the oldest works of art ever discovered, according to a study published Monday.
The discovery is further evidence that Neanderthals – Homo neanderthalensis – were able to express symbolism through art – which was once attributed only to our own species, Homo sapiens..
“It’s clearly not a pendant or anything like that,” said Thomas Terberger, professor and prehistoric archaeologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany, who co-authored a study on the object in the journal Nature Ecology. & Evolution. “It’s clearly a decoration with a sort of symbolic character. … you might even call it the initial beginning of art, something that wasn’t done by accident, but with a clear plan in mind.
The bone was unearthed in a cave in the Harz Mountains in central Germany, about 150 miles southwest of Berlin. The front is carved with overlapping chevrons – inverted V-shaped lines – that appear to point upward, and archaeologists have also discerned a line of smaller incisions on its lower edge, which appears to have served as a base.
“We were trying it, and this object can stand on its own on its base. It doesn’t shake or tip or anything, ”said archaeologist Dirk Leder from the Lower Saxony National Office for Cultural Heritage, who led the excavations that uncovered the bone. “He was probably left standing in a corner of the cave.”
The carved bone was unearthed alongside deer scapula bones and the intact skull of a cave bear – rare items that may have indicated the assemblage had ritual significance, he said.
Radiocarbon dating has established that the bone is 51,000 years old – more than any comparable artwork attributed to the Neanderthals.
Archaeologists have also found ancient eagle talons used as pendants by Neanderthals, as well as cave paintings in Spain that may be older – 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; it is now a tourist attraction. It takes its name from the fossilized bones found there, supposedly from unicorns, which were once crushed to make medicine.
Excavations since the 1980s have established that the cave was inhabited by successive generations of Neanderthals, from at least 130,000 years to around 47,000 years.
Later groups of Homo sapiens also inhabited the cave, but only much later, around 12,000 years ago, Leder said. The earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in southeastern Europe dates back around 45,000 years, and it is not believed that they arrived in central Europe for at least 10,000 years after that, he said. declared.
Archaeologists can only guess at the significance of the engravings – if they have any significance. “It’s pretty unique,” Leder said. “We don’t see it anywhere in Paleolithic literature.
“We were discussing different interpretations. … The shape might look like a female figurine with the head and chest, but the herringbone pattern for some of us looked like three mountains in a row – a landscape view, ”he said.
Microscopic analysis of the bone shows the carvings to be very deep, suggesting that it was boiled to soften it before carving began. The prehistoric deer species that the bone came from was also rare in the region at the time and extremely large, which might suggest the artwork was of particular importance, he said.
The discovery is further evidence that Neanderthals were not just stupid cave men, as scientists once thought, but were capable of artistic or symbolic expression – which was once considered unique to Homo sapiens. said Bruce Hardy, professor of anthropology at Kenyon University in Ohio, who was not involved in the latest study.
It is likely that many Neanderthal artistic objects were carved from wood – a medium much easier to work with than stone or bone – which perished after several thousand years, he said.
Growing evidence of symbolic artistic expression by Neanderthals, as well as by later Homo sapiens, suggests that the hominid species that were the ancestors of the two were also artistic, he said.
“If these two different groups also share a common ancestor, it is likely that this common ancestor also has some degree of symbolic ability, which means that it dates back much further,” he said.
Hardy’s own research has included the discovery of what appears to be a piece of Neanderthal string – Stone Age technology never seen before.
Archaeologist Andrew Sorensen of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands said analysis of the marks on the bone shows that they may not have been the result of random gnawing by carnivores.
“The relatively smooth angles of the intersecting lines are particularly convincing that these marks were intentionally created by Neanderthals,” he wrote in an email.
Of particular interest was the possibility that the bone was boiled to make it easier to work with, 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.