For a long time, the Neanderthals were regarded as rather dumb cousins of our ancestors. They were not thought to be intelligent enough to have more complex tools, more sophisticated hunting methods or even forms of art and culture. However, numerous discoveries in recent years make it increasingly clear that our glacial cousins were no less advanced than Homo sapiens. For example, Neanderthal jewelery and rock carvings suggest a capacity for abstract thinking, remnants of red pigments suggest a body or coat painting, and various tools testify to effective hunting methods. But one thing has clearly been the domain of modern man: the construction of buildings, be they huts, shelters or ritual sites. Simple round constructions of mammoth bones were known only from the time around 20.00 years ago.
Stalactite circles in the permanent dark
However, Jacques Jaubert of the University of Bordeaux and his colleagues in the Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France have made an unexpected and sensational discovery: in a large chamber about 336 meters from the entrance to the cave, they came across two unusual circular arrangements of stalactite pieces, as well as four smaller entities. The circles formed a good six-foot-high and a two-meter-high almost closed ring of partially erected, partially stacked stones. In total, around 400 pieces of stalactite, each averaging 35 centimeters in length, were installed in these structures. "Some elements were placed within overlapping layers to support them, " the researchers report. "Other stalagmites were placed vertically against the main structure, much like columns to reinforce the structure." The uniform size of the fragments and their arrangement, in their view, suggest that this is not a natural formation but a deliberate one built structure. Another indication that the stalactite circles must not have been built by animals, but by early humans, provide fire marks on the stones and on some discovered nearby animal bones.
But who were the builders of these enigmatic cave constructions? Dating using isotope measurements revealed that these stalactites must have been built some 176, 000 years ago. They date back to a time long before Homo sapiens left Africa and came to Europe. "The only human population living in Europe during this period were early Neanderthals, " says Jaubert and his colleagues. In their view, these strange stone circles must therefore have been built by them. As you explain, the Neanderthals were also the first early humans to regularly use fire in our latitudes and started to use it for cooking and making new materials. However, the fact that these early humans penetrated so deep into karst caves where there was no light is very unusual. "So far, there has been no evidence of regular Neanderthal excursions into caves except for a few possible footprints, " the researchers said. Constructions within caves were previously completely unknown from the Paleolithic.
"The discovery of the Bruniquel constructions and their assignment to the Neanderthals is unprecedented in two ways: First, it reveals for the first time the appropriation of a deep karst by a pre-modern human species, " say Jaubert and his colleagues. "On the other hand, these are elaborate constructions never seen before, made from hundreds of calibrated, broken stalagmites deliberately moved and returned to their present location." Their discovery suggests that Neanderthal society is evolving was previously thought to include modern elements such as a complex spatial organization, the use of fire, and the settlement of deep caves. display
But the discovery of the stalactite circles also raises some new questions: what was the function of these structures so far from the cave entrance? Why are most traces of fire not found on the cave floor, where you would expect them, but on top of the stalactite construction? "Based on our knowledge of late Paleolithic cave use, we would assume that these structures represented a kind of ritual or symbolic behavior, " say the researchers. "But maybe they also served a hitherto unknown everyday use or simply as a refuge? Future research must now try to find answers here. "
- Jacques Jaubert (University of Bordeaux, Bordeaux) et al., Nature, doi: 10.1038 / nature18291