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A 51,000 year-old carved bone is one of the world's oldest works of art, researchers say

NBC News logo NBC News 7/5/2021 Tom Metcalfe
a close up of a rock © Provided by NBC News

The toe bone of a prehistoric deer carved with lines by Neanderthals 51,000 years ago is one of the oldest works of art ever found, according to a study released Monday.

The discovery is further evidence that Neanderthals —  Homo neanderthalensis — were capable of expressing symbolism through art — something once attributed only to our own species, Homo sapiens.

a close up of a rock: Image: engraved giant deer bone (V. Minkus / Courtesy Lower Saxony Office for Heritage) © V. Minkus Image: engraved giant deer bone (V. Minkus / Courtesy Lower Saxony Office for Heritage)

“This is clearly not a pendant or something like that,” said Thomas Terberger, a professor and prehistoric archaeologist at the University of Göttingen, who co-authored a study of the object published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. “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.”

The bone was unearthed in a cave in the Harz Mountains of central Germany, about 150 miles southwest of Berlin. The front of it is carved with overlapping chevrons — lines in the shape of an inverted V — that appear to point upwards, and archaeologists have also discerned a line of smaller incisions on its lower edge, which seems to have served as its base.

“We were trying it out, and this object can stand alone on its base, it doesn’t shake or tip over or anything,” said archaeologist Dirk Leder of the Lower Saxony state office for Cultural Heritage, who led the excavations that discovered the bone. “It was probably left standing upright in a corner of the cave.”

The carved bone was unearthed alongside the shoulder blade bones of deer and the intact skull of a cave bear — rare objects that may have indicated the assemblage had ritual meaning, he said.

a close up of a logo: Image: Engraved bone (Courtesy Lower Saxony Office for Heritage) © Courtesy Lower Saxony Office for Heritage Image: Engraved bone (Courtesy Lower Saxony Office for Heritage)

Radiocarbon dating has established that the bone is 51,000 years old — older than any comparable works of art attributed to Neanderthals.

Archaeologists have also found ancient eagle talons used as pendants by Neanderthals, and cave paintings in Spain that may be older, but their date is disputed, Terberger said: “In this case, for the first time, we have a reliably dated object.”

The Einhornhöhle — or “Unicorn Cave” —  where the carved bone was unearthed has been famous since at least the 16th century and is now a tourist attraction. It got its name from the fossilized bones found there, supposedly from unicorns, that were once ground up to make medicines.

Excavations since the 1980s have established that the cave was inhabited by successive generations of Neanderthals, from at least 130,000 years ago until about 47,000 years ago.

Later groups of Homo sapiens also inhabited the cave, but only much later, after about 12,000 years ago, Leder said. The earliest evidence for Homo sapiens in the southeast of Europe is from about 45,000 years ago, and it’s not thought they arrived in central Europe until at least 10,000 years after that, he said.

a group of people standing next to a pile of snow: The former cave entrance where the engraved item was recovered from. The item was found about 1 m behind the person holding the staff. (J. Lehmann / Courtesy Lower Saxony Office for Heritage) © J. Lehmann The former cave entrance where the engraved item was recovered from. The item was found about 1 m behind the person holding the staff. (J. Lehmann / Courtesy Lower Saxony Office for Heritage)

The archaeologists can only guess at the meanings of the carvings, and if they have any meaning at all. “This is quite unique,” Leder said. “We don’t see it anywhere in the Paleolithic literature.”

“We were discussing different interpretations…  the shape could be like a female figurine with the head and the chest part, but then the chevron pattern to some of us looked like three mountains in a row — a landscape view,” he said.

Microscopic analysis of the bone shows the carvings are very deep, which suggests it was boiled to soften it before carving. The species of prehistoric deer that the bone was from was also rare in the region at the time and extremely large, which could suggest the artwork had special importance, he said.

The discovery is more evidence that Neanderthals were not just dumb cavemen, as scientists once believed, but were capable of artistic or symbolic expression — something once thought to be unique to Homo sapiens, said Bruce Hardy, a professor anthropology at Kenyon University in Ohio, who was not involved in the latest study.

But it’s likely that a lot of Neanderthal artistic objects were carved into wood — a much easier medium to work with than stone or bone — that has now perished after many thousands of years, he said. 

The fact that there was increasing evidence of symbolic artistic expression by Neanderthals, as well as by later Homo sapiens, suggested the hominin species that were the ancestors of both were also artistic, he said.

“If those two different groups also share a common ancestor, chances are that common ancestor also has some degree of symbolic ability as well, which means it goes much further back,” he said.

Hardy’s own research has included the discovery of what seems to be a piece of Neanderthal string — a Stone Age technology not seen before. 

Archaeologist Andrew Sorensen of Leiden University in the Netherlands said that the analysis of the marks on the bone show they can’t have been the result of random gnawing by carnivores.

“The relatively regular angles of the intersecting lines is particularly convincing that these marks were created intentionally by Neanderthals,” he wrote in an email.

The possibility that the bone had been boiled to make it easier to work with was especially interesting, he said. His own research focuses on the use of fire by Neanderthals, which is also seen as evidence of their ability to use relatively advanced technologies.2


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