51,000-year-old Carving Reveals Neanderthals Produced Art
51,000 years ago, our Stone Age hominin cousins, the Neanderthals, left behind a thoughtfully carved and decorated deer toe bone. This piece of conceptual art found in northern Germany has just been attributed to Neanderthals and provides a wonderful new insight into hitherto unknown mental capacities of the species. "The phalanx from Einhornhöhle with its stacked offset chevrons represents one of the most complex cultural expressions in Neanderthals known so far," write the authors of the study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution .
The historic find was unearthed from a cave in the Harz mountains in Central Germany, 241 kilometers (150 miles) southwest of Berlin. Popularly called the ‘Unicorn Cave’ or Die Einhornhöhle, the cave is developed in dolomite strata and for centuries has been a source of wonder and mystique. In the Middle Ages ‘people literally mined the site for mammoth tusks , cave bear teeth, and the remains of other extinct animals’, reports National Geographic .
The deer toe bone was found in Die Einhornhöhle, or Unicorn Cave, Lower Saxony, Germany. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Symbolic Behavior, Ritual Exercise or Something More?
The evidence for art and symbolic behavior have been found in early modern humans or early Homo sapiens , the successors to Neanderthals, in both Africa and Eurasia. Neanderthals, however, have not previously been associated with such behavior, and this find illustrates that an accurate description of their cognitive capacity is yet to be fully known. The engraved bone of this Ice Age deer “demonstrates that conceptual imagination, as a prerequisite to compose individual lines into a coherent design, was present in Neanderthals”.
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The front of the bone is carved in overlapping chevrons, i.e., lines in the shape of inverted V’s that appear to point in an upwards direction, with smaller incisions on its lower edge, which was probably its base. As per NBC, 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 that the assemblage had ritual meaning, according to Dirk Leder of the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage, who was leading the excavations.
Micro-CT 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. (Image: Courtesy Lower Saxony Office for Heritage / Nature )
The initial thought, when presented to archaeologists Thomas Terberger and Dirk Leder, was not one of surprise or wonder, but something they have become accustomed to since their excavations and work in the cave since 2014. They believed it was probably the work of an Ice Age human and that radiocarbon dating would support their assumptions. However, they were wrong – radiocarbon dating pitted this find to 51,000 years ago, when there is no evidence of modern humans in the location.
Work has been going on in the Unicorn Cave since the 1980s, which revealed that Neanderthals inhabited this particular cave between 130,000 years and 47,000 years ago. H. sapiens only began inhabiting the Einhornhöhle 12,000 years ago. The meanings of the carvings are difficult to decipher, as there is no concurrent Palaeolithic literature that explains it.
“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,” says Leder.
What microscopic analysis shows is that these carvings were very deep, and probably achieved via softening the bone. The only method of doing that would have been to boil the bone, especially as this deer was not found in ubiquity or abundance in that region, making it especially rare and perhaps having some significance beyond prehistoric men just having fun with an artistic expression. In any case, it would be fair to say that Neanderthal men were not just ‘dumb’ or lacked cognitive behavioral mechanisms that puts them in a sub-category to modern humans and their successors, something which was previously thought.
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Is This Conclusive Proof of Neanderthal Art?
This toe bone is significant because it is one of the earliest pieces of evidence of a work of art found. Thomas Terberger, co-author on the study, who is a professor and pre-historic archaeologist at the University of Gottingen in Germany states:
“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. It’s an idea, a planned motif that you have in your mind and translate into reality. It’s the start of culture, the start of abstract thinking, the birth of art.”
Clearly, Neanderthals created symbolic expressions and works of art before H. sapiens arrived in Central Europe, shattering the timeline that had previously been chalked out. Stretching the estimate to its maximum, modern humans entered this part of Europe between 45,000 to 50,000 years ago, maximum.
However, it would be prudent to not wade into the labels of art and culture, without acknowledging and accepting that what is art today, in a visual and aesthetic sense, has evolved and undergone many avatars and definitions over these 50,000 odd years. In that way, it is a fairly modern phenomenon to understand and attach meaning to artistic expression and endeavor, making it difficult to put such a label on a pre-historic and ancient discovery.
Top image: | Engraved giant deer phalanx from a late Middle Palaeolithic context (layer 4.5) at Einhornhöhle, Lower Saxony, Germany. Source: V. Minkus / Nature
By Rudra Bhushan
Curry, A. 2021. Were Neanderthals making ‘art’ in Europe’s fabled Unicorn Cave? Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/were-neanderthals-making-art-europe-unicorn-cave.
Metcalfe, T. 2021. A 51,000-year-old carved bone is one of the world's oldest works of art, researchers say . Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/51000-year-old-carved-bone-one-worlds-oldest-works-art-researchers-say-rcna1333.
Leder, D., Hermann, R., Terberger, T., et al . 2021. A 51,000-year-old engraved bone reveals Neanderthals’ capacity for symbolic behaviour . Nature Ecology & Evolution. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-021-01487-z.