Ring Structures Found in a Neanderthal Cave Are Astonishingly Old

May 26, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France
Photo credit: © Etienne FABRE – SSAC

The origins of modernity?

176,500 years ago, Neanderthals working deep in a cave located in what is now southwestern France deliberately broke stalagmites into hundreds of uniform fragments and arranged them, in layers, into two rings — a large one between 4 and 7 meters (13 and 23 feet) across, and a smaller one 2 meters (6.5 feet) wide. They also carefully placed some vertical pieces against the main walls to prop them up.

On further examination of the structures, a team led by archaeologists from France and Belgium found signs of burning, suggesting that fires were made within the walls.

In the 1990s, a burnt bear bone found within one of the rings was deemed to contain no detectable radioactive carbon, indicating that the bone was older than 50,000 years, the limit of carbon dating. This was the first clue that the structures might not have been the work of Homo sapiens, who only arrived on the scene in Europe around 40,000 years ago.

SEE ALSO: Human and Neanderthal Interbreeding Suggests Major Evolutionary Timeline Change

Reporting in the journal Nature, the team of researchers recently drilled into the stalagmites themselves to come up with a more reliable age estimate using uranium dating. They were shocked to find that the structures date back to a period when Neanderthal was the sole Homo species living in Europe, 176,500 years ago.

These structures are among the world’s oldest constructions made by an early human. Previously, there was little evidence in the archaeological record of any structures having been built by Neanderthals.

But given that chimpanzees, birds, and other animals build elaborate nests, is it really surprising that Neanderthals — a species known to have created cave art and sophisticated tools — would have had the intelligence to stack stalagmites together?

The most surprising part of the find might not be the structures themselves, but the fact that they were built at such great depths in the cave.

The authors write: “Their presence at 336 metres from the entrance of the cave indicates that humans from this period had already mastered the underground environment, which can be considered a major step in human modernity.”

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