A team of archaeologists has unearthed a giant deer bone with strange engravings made about 51,000 years ago in a cave in central Germany. They claim that the finding is definitive proof that Neanderthals were capable of complex and symbolic thinking similar to that of our own species. Homo sapiens.
The fossil appeared in Einhornhöhl, or Unicorn Cave, southwest of Berlin, a place that for centuries was a pilgrimage site for those who wanted to get a bone from this fantastic animal. Now this cave has become an epicenter to understand one of the most interesting moments in the history of the human race: the time in which members of our own species from Africa arrived in Europe and found the Neanderthals, who had been here already. hundreds of thousands of years. It happened about 45,000 years ago. Just 5,000 years later, the Neanderthals were extinct forever and the sapiens took over the planet.
A few millennia later, the explosion of art happened with the first sculptures of women and mythological beings, exceptional cave paintings of animals in caves and also musical instruments made of bone. One of the biggest questions about human evolution is whether in those days only sapiens were capable of developing symbols, culture and probably also religions or if Neanderthals also created theirs.
In 2019, a team led by cultural heritage researchers from the state of Lower Saxony found a phalanx of a giant deer in Einhornhöhl, an imposing animal over two meters tall that had one of the most threatening antlers of that time.
“At a first glance, only a cut mark was seen,” Dirk Leder, first author of the find, explained to this newspaper. “But when we cleaned the bone, a pattern in the shape of wedges or linked chevrons appeared and we were convinced that it was an intentional drawing that probably hides a symbolic meaning,” he highlights.
That day some members of the team thought that this bone must have been carved by a sapiens while others supported that it was a Neanderthal. The “Eureka moment”, says Leder, came with the dating of the bone and the remains of bonfires found next to it: it was at least 51,000 years old and at that time only Neanderthals lived in this area of Europe.
At that point the archaeologists did an experiment: they took cow bones, made stone tools out of pebbles from the river just like the Neanderthals did, and began to try to reproduce the drawing. The work was very complicated or impossible if it was not cooked once or twice beforehand. After several attempts, the experimental archaeologists found that the way to redraw the symbol was to first make the vertical incision and then make the perpendicular lines. In total it takes an hour and a half of work. Rafael Hermann, researcher at the University of Göttingen and co-author of the study explains that it is “a real pain to be able to extract the bone from the phalanx, because it is literally embedded in the hoof”, he highlights,
“The pattern on the bone tells us that whoever drew it was following a plan,” explains Leder. “It represents an abstract image, a symbol that can represent an idea or even an abbreviated narrative. This symbol could probably be read by other Neanderthals who would understand its meaning, something that none of us modern humans can do. We are clearly facing what is usually called symbolic thinking, communication with symbols ”, he adds.
Another argument in favor of the symbolism is that at that time there were very few giant deer in this area so they were probably a prized trophy.
The finding adds to other evidence that the Neanderthal mind was not as crude or basic as archaeologists thought decades ago. Geometric drawings made by Neanderthals on stones and bones have been found in recent years. In the cave of La Pasiega, in Cantabria, there is a staircase that could have been painted by Neanderthals about 64,000 years ago, although its dating is still debated. None of these tests has succeeded in dispelling the doubts as to whether these behaviors were genuinely Neanderthal or whether it was the Sapiens who taught them. The unicorn cave bone rules out that Neanderthal culture came from the sapiens, say the authors of the finding in a study posted today on Nature Ecology and Evolution.
“Neanderthals were cognitively very similar to sapiens, at least not inferior,” maintains Leder. “What I find most intriguing of all,” he continues, “is that before 45,000 years ago not a single drawing was known to represent nature, for example animals, as we do see them later in the famous caves of Spain and France. or in the small sculptures a few thousand years later, all associated with the Homo sapiens. It seems as if before that date the only artistic representations of humans, whatever their species, were only abstract patterns and symbols ”, he adds.
Silvia Bello, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, believes that it cannot be ruled out that Sapiens and Neanderthals exchanged this type of manifestation on dates prior to 51,000 years. DNA analysis of a skull of Homo sapiens found in the Czech Republic, about 400 kilometers from Einhornhöhle, shows that there was a cross between the two species more than 50,000 years ago, he reasons. Other studies point to older crosses, around 100,000 ago. It is therefore possible that the authors of the German bone were mestizos born of those crosses that reproduced a practice learned from the sapiens by their ancestors and transmitted from generation to generation.
This possibility “does not underestimate the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals,” Bello writes in a comment to the study. “It is the opposite. The ability to learn and integrate an innovation in your own culture, to adapt abstract concepts is a sign of mental complexity. The Einhornhöhle bone brings Neanderthal behavior closer to that of the Homo sapiens”, He concludes.
“The finding is convincing,” says Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, a prehistorian at the Complutense University of Madrid. A few years ago his team discovered in Tarragona an imperial eagle claw with a vertical series of notches made by Neanderthals. It seems that raptors were one of the favorite animals for these practices, as more than 20 have been found in 10 different sites ranging from 130,000 years ago to 42,000 years ago, explains Bello.
“One question I have in mind when trying to understand the possible symbolic world of Neanderthals is, why is the evidence so scarce?” Says Rodríguez-Hidalgo. “If giant deer phalanxes carved into chevrons had a symbolic function in the Neanderthal world, why have we only found one? We should find enough, but this is not the case ”, he emphasizes.