A new archaeological paper published in Nature has caused something of a stir as it details the discovery in a cave in France of ancient structures intentionally built from stalagmites, which dating methods suggest to be around 176,000 years old. The main significance of this finding is that during this time period there were no homo-sapiens in the region, instead it was occupied by neanderthals (homo-neanderthalensis). Consequently, the discovery offers some new evidence that the complexity of neanderthal cognitive abilities may have been underestimated and provides us with a remarkable new piece of evidence relating to the earliest origins of culture. The details of how the site was discovered also fit a romantic image of archaeologists exploring long forgotten caves or ancient ruins (Indiana Jones has a lot to answer for) and there is an interesting video about it here.
That we have previously underestimated the abilities of neanderthals is something of a recurring theme in modern research, as there is now evidence that they used tools, built fires, buried their dead, cared for older injured group members, and possibly had some form of language. The true extent of their symbolic or cultural abilities remains largely unknown but despite the reappraisals there is still a clear qualitative difference with the more extensive archaeological evidence for symbolic culture left by homo-sapiens (at least over the past 50,000 years).
The remains in the cave are a fascinating discovery not only for their age but also because the structures do not seem well suited to serving ordinary domestic purposes. There is evidence of repeated fire and burning but the structures were built very deep inside the cave, where there would have been no natural light. Images of strange stone structures lit by flickering fires in the deep recesses of a cave might immediately raise thoughts of unknown rituals, but the researchers are admirably hesitant in their conclusions stating in the paper: “we could assume that they represent some kind of symbolic or ritual behaviour, but could they rather have served for an unknown domestic use or simply as a refuge?“
In contrast, the science communication media are less reticent, Annalee Newitz writing for Ars Technica, for example, begins her article by confidently stating: “176,500 years ago, long before modern humans left Africa for the Eurasian continent, a band of Neanderthals conducted an elaborate ritual deep inside Bruniquel Cave in a region we know today as southern France” and goes on to elaborate that “based on the burn patterns, it seems that the structures themselves were designed to light on fire, creating what would have appeared to be circles of flaming stone in the otherwise pitch-black cave“. Newitz’s speculations, as is often the case in science journalism, go significantly farther than the evidence in the study or the author’s themselves.
Surprisingly, a more balanced analysis is provided by the news article that accompanied the paper over at Nature as this also includes some critical voices, including the archaeologist Harold Dibble who isn’t entirely convinced that the researchers have done enough to establish the piles haven’t been left by cave bears. Similarly, Jean-Jacques Hublin, a paleo archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute, is quoted as saying: “Some people will come up with interpretations of ritual or religion or symbolism. Why not? But how to prove it?”
Fair point and one that science journalists would do well to heed.