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The cultural lives of the Neanderthals

15 July 2021

In a cave in the highlands of central Germany, among rubble and cave bear bones, a team of archaeologists recently discovered something rather more unexpected: an engraved knuckle from a long-extinct giant deer, which had lain buried for 51,000 years. The engraver was related to our species, though only distantly. Among the scatter was a broken tool made from local flint, and bones showing possible butchery, but no sign of a well-used hearth or the detritus of a long stay. It seems the engraver, and perhaps their group, were just passing through – but lost something special along their way. They were Neanderthals, and the engraving has much relevance for how we understand their cultural lives.

Since the Middle Ages, the Einhornhöhle, which translates to ‘Unicorn Cave’, has been known to hold strange old bones. They were once believed to come from fantastic creatures, and ground down to make medicines. The discovery of the engraved Megaloceros phalanx, which took place during excavations of the cave in 2019 and was first announced in a paper earlier this month, offers new information about a species that is itself often mythologised. It adds to the growing list of reasons we now look upon Neanderthals not as simple brutes but as sophisticated artisans as well as masterly toolmakers: a species capable of signifying important objects by painting them in red ochre, piercing and stringing them from cord, burying them with their dead – or incising them with lines whose meaning has been lost to time.

The engraving looks clearly decorative: five stacked, offset chevrons and a second set of four short lines were formed from different directions and deep incisions that don’t come about by butchery or carnivore gnawing. The researchers attempted to recreate the artefact, and concluded that boiling the bone first before incising it with sharp flint flakes created the most similar outcomes (including its microscopic features). It’s not clear whether marks indicate the bone had been strung; the concave shape of a phalanx means a string could tie around the centre and not slip off. The researchers point out that the bottom is flat, and the bone could stand upright with the chevrons pointing upwards.

There is little doubt that the engraving is the age suggested; it was found underneath undisturbed, sterile layers – any mixing of sediments, such as from historical digging, is unlikely. While it could be older, it is almost definitely not younger than 51,000 years. This engraver had, then, most likely never met nor seen a Homo sapiens before. Our species, while they were just starting to branch out into south-eastern Europe, had yet to reach these northern climes, and would not for thousands more years.

An image of the Neanderthal ‘hashtag’ found in Gibraltar.

An image of the Neanderthal ‘hashtag’ found in Gibraltar. Photo: Rodríguez-Vidal et al. 2014

Once our species did spread across Europe, art and symbolic artefacts became more commonplace, and Neanderthals slowly disappeared (though interbreeding means their genes live on in us). This age, which began some 40,000 years ago, used to be seen as an ‘explosion’ of art, but it is now understood as part of a more gradual acceleration of artistic expression across Africa, Asia and Europe. However, before this point no species was making art frequently or in many different places – this is why each appearance generates so much excitement. The tip of South Africa has been particularly fertile ground for discoveries relating to our own species, where engraved ochre, ochre crayons and pierced ochred shells have been found at Blombos Cave, dating back some 75,000 years. But in Europe, Neanderthals have also left evidence of complex behaviour. In a cave in Gibraltar, a hashtag shape was etched into the wall 39,000 years ago. In south-eastern Spain, ladder-like paintings on cave walls date back 64,000 years. Notched eagle talons have been found in Croatia among Neanderthal bones from 130,000 years ago. And 175,000 years ago, deep in Bruniquel Cave in southern France, Neanderthals created circular structures from broken stalagmites, working together for reasons unknown.

Does the engraving found in Germany, which might be described as the first ‘portable’ engraving by a Neanderthal, resolve or add anything to the debate and ideas surrounding the cognitive lives of our distant cousins? While discoveries in archaeology rarely rewrite everything (contrary to what headlines might tell you), this one certainly adds to the increasingly multifaceted picture of the species. Today Neanderthals are seen in a more in-depth and nuanced way than ever before: just take a look at the expressive depictions by palaeoartist Tom Björklund, or the archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ recent book Kindred (2020), which tells the story of the Neanderthals in their full complexity. ‘Neanderthals were survivors and explorers, pioneering new ways to be human,’ writes Wragg Sykes. ‘Long-burning aesthetic embers and bright eruptions of symbolic engagements are there in collecting special objects, marking things and places.’ This engraved bone adds to the fire.