A 51,000‑Year‑Old Bone Carving Shows Neanderthals May Have Had ‘Artistic’ Skills
Archaeologists discovered a pre-historic deer bone in Germany engraved with geometric carvings. The tiny bone dating back to the Ice Age suggests that Neanderthals, the “closest extinct human relatives,” were capable of artistic expression and symbolic thought.
Published in Nature Ecology and Evolution on Monday, the study found the bone to be 51,000 years old, making it one of the oldest works of art ever found.
Experts are excited about the discovery — it suggests that Neanderthals may have possessed skills, such as artistic traits, which are assumed to be unique to modern humans. Until now, our knowledge of the extinct human relatives was restricted to their ability to fashion wooden tools, mourn their dead, and produce “human-like” speech. The discovery of their artistic inclinations may suggest greater and more complicated cognitive abilities than previously assumed.
“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,” Thomas Terberger, a professor and prehistoric archaeologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany, who co-authored the study, told NBC News.
The researchers believe it’s not simply a pendant, but probably an artifact used to either “decorate” their caves, or fulfill another symbolic purpose. “We were trying it out, and this object can stand alone on its base. It doesn’t shake or tip over or anything. It was probably left standing upright in a corner of the cave,” Dirk Leder, an archaeologist from the State Service for Cultural Heritage Lower Saxony in Germany, who led the study, told NBC News.
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The researchers conducted a process called radiocarbon dating to figure out how old the bone was. Further analyses indicated that prior to the engraving, the bone was boiled by the Neanderthals to soften it.
“The choice of material, its preparation before carving and the skillful technique used for the engraving are all indicative of sophisticated expertise and great ability in bone working,” Silvia Bello from the Centre for Human Evolution Research at the Natural History Museum in the U.K., wrote in a Nature editorial accompanying the research.
“Evidence of artistic decorations would suggest production or modification of objects for symbolic reasons beyond mere functionality, adding a new dimension to the complex cognitive capability of Neanderthals,” Bello, who didn’t co-author the study itself, but was involved in its peer-review process, added.
Experts are currently divided on whether the Neanderthals’ artistic skillset was influenced by their interactions with Homo sapiens — the species to which modern-day humans belong. Dirk Leder believes Homo sapiens had not reached this part of Europe until 43,000 years back, and therefore, the bone carving must be free from their influence.
Bello, on the other hand, finds research indicating the exchange of genes between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens over 50,000 years ago more reliable — and so, believes the interaction between the two may have been responsible for the artifact. “We cannot exclude a similarly early exchange of knowledge between modern human and Neanderthal populations,” she noted.
However, she clarified that the finding neither overshadows the discovery nor reflects negatively on the Neanderthals’ artistry. “The possibility of an acquired knowledge from modern humans doesn’t undervalue, in my opinion, the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals. On the contrary, the capacity to learn, integrate innovation into one’s own culture, and adapt to new technologies and abstract concepts should be recognized as an element of behavioral complexity,” she explained.