Neanderthals, what a bone reveals about their artistic sense

A carved giant deer bone adds to previous clues about Neanderthals’ abilities to think abstractly, but some experts doubt it’s all their own thing.

(image: @ NatureEcoEvo / Twitter)

There is more and more evidence that our ancient cousins Neanderthal they were capable of symbolic thinking. A giant deer bone beyond 50 thousand years ago, found in the Unicorn Cave in Germany, would have been carved for aesthetic purposes: a art form which is in addition to cave paintings and other artifacts prior to the arrival of homo sapiens in Eurasia.

An artistic artifact

As reported in studio Published on Nature Ecology&Evolution, based on radiocarbon dating the giant deer bone (Megaloceros giganteus, a now extinct species believed to have been 2 meters high at the withers and with a horn stage that could reach 3.5 meters in width) dates back to about 51 thousand years ago, before therefore of the alleged arrival of homo sapiens in the region which today corresponds to Central Europe. The place of the discovery, the so-called Unicorn cave in the Harz mountains in northern Germany, is known for having returned over time various archaeological finds traced back to communities of Homo neanderthalensis, between bones and artifacts.

According to the German researchers who signed the discovery, the engravings found on the animal’s bone are not the result of slaughter, but represent a geometric pattern “Clearly decorative”: two precise sets of intersecting lines made with a vertical cut and then scraped. To make the object, the Neanderthals would have boiled it first to soften it and make it easier to work with.

Influence of the Sapiens?

For some time now the idea that i Neanderthal were just crude hominids with very limited cognitive faculties was abandoned: experts agree that they had complex behavioral traits, who cared for their fellow disabled and elderly people and had a certain cult of the dead, which were able to produce technological tools. However, the discoveries that would testify to the complexity of the thought of our ancient cousins ​​are still few and do not allow us to get a precise idea of ​​their actual capabilities.

Although radiocarbon dating of the carved giant deer bone testifies to German researchers its manufacture before any contact with the Sapiens and therefore constitutes evidence of the level of complexity of Neanderthal cognitive abilities, some experts they doubt that Neanderthals were able to process abstract and symbolic thoughts independently and that ornamental artifacts and paintings attributed to them are the result of influences by homo sapiens.

“Archaeological finds of artistic engravings are rare and, in some cases, ambiguous. Evidence of artistic decorations would suggest the production or modification of objects for symbolic reasons beyond mere functionality, adding a new dimension to the complex cognitive ability of Neanderthals, writes Silvia Bello from the Natural History Museum in London, in an article accompanying the publication of the study on Nature. And he adds: “The choice of the material, its preparation before carving and the skilful technique used for the engraving are all indications of sophisticated expertise e great skill in processing of the bones “.

However, recent genetic studies they highlight that Neanderthals and Sapiens are crossed before 50 thousand years ago, and given this early gene exchange an exchange of knowledge cannot be excluded equally precocious among modern human and Neanderthal populations. “The possibility of a knowledge acquired by modern man does not underestimate, in my opinion, the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals”, writes again Bello: “On the contrary, ability to learn, integrating innovation into one’s culture and adapting to new technologies and abstract concepts should be recognized as an element of behavioral complexity “.

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