Stone circles show Neandertals’ social, technical skills

176,500-year-old stalagmite structures found in French cave

French cave

ANCIENT RING  A new study finds that Neandertals built structures out of stalagmites. Here, a researcher takes measurements of a circular arrangement of stalagmites created in a French cave around 176,500 years ago.

Etienne Fabre/SSAC

In at least one part of Stone Age Europe, Neandertals were lords of the rings. Humankind’s close evolutionary cousins built large, circular structures out of stalagmites in a French cave around 176,500 years ago, researchers say.

Neandertal groups explored the cave’s dark recesses, where they assembled stalagmite pieces into complex configurations, archaeologist Jacques Jaubert of the University of Bordeaux in France and colleagues report online May 25 in Nature. Two ring-shaped formations and four smaller stalagmite arrangements, situated 336 meters inside France’s Bruniquel Cave, all display traces of ancient fires on stalagmite chunks. 

These ancient constructions were discovered in the early 1990s, but limited access to Bruniquel Cave delayed dating of the finds until 2013. Jaubert’s team calculated the age of these creations based on the decay of uranium variants in six stalagmites from the two circular structures. Neandertals inhabited Europe and Asia from around 400,000 to 40,000 years ago. Homo sapiens did not leave Africa until about 60,000 years ago. That leaves Neandertals as the only candidates for builders of the stalagmite circles.

The Bruniquel Cave structures provide further evidence that European Neandertals’ social behavior and technical skills roughly equaled those of African H. sapiens living at the same time (SN: 4/18/15, p. 7), Jaubert says. His group plans to investigate whether the cave constructions served ritual or practical purposes. Additional finds are also needed to determine whether Neandertals regularly made stalagmite structures in caves, archaeologist Marie Soressi of Leiden University in the Netherlands writes, also online in Nature.

Paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, doesn’t find it surprising that large-brained Neandertals explored caves and assembled structures out of stalagmites. But while those are complex behaviors, Neandertals still differed from H. sapiens in important ways, Hublin argues. Fossil tooth analyses indicate, for instance, that Neandertals altered their diets to exploit whatever foods were available as climates and habitats shifted in Western Eurasia over several hundred thousand years. But H. sapiens adapted quickly to habitat changes after leaving Africa and consistently ate a variety of edible plants, possibly because they wielded a more diverse array of stone tools than Neandertals, Hublin suspects.

Editor’s note: This story was updated June 7, 2016, to correct the number of stalagmites used to calculate the age of the ring formations.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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