175,000-year-old Neanderthal cave structure rewrites history

26 May 2016

A screenshot from the Neanderthal caves.

Our understanding of our Neanderthal ancestors has been turned on its head, as French and Belgian archaeologists have discovered a 175,000-year-old structure deep in a cave, making it the earliest known construction project ever discovered.

100,000 years before modern humans began making their way into Europe, the continent was the home of our Neanderthal ancestors who, it has gradually been revealed, were a lot more capable than was originally thought.

Now, following carbon-dating analysis of stacked stalactite structures within the Bruniquel cave in southern France, a team of researchers was shocked to find they dated as far back as at least 175,000 years ago.

Future Human

Evidence of fire use

Neanderthal structure

A 3D image of the structure. Image via Xavier MUTH – Get in Situ, Archéotransfert, Archéovision -SHS-3D, base photographique Pascal Mora

First discovered in 1999, the ancient cave was found to also house traces of ancient bear movement, with the discovery of tracks and hibernation holes, yet a clearly unnatural arrangement of broken-off stalagmite and stalactite tips were clearly not arranged by these bears of old.

The international research team, which published its findings in Nature, was able to use advanced carbon-dating analysis to extract compared core samples from the broken-off tips and the new stalactites that have developed on top of them in the thousands of years that have followed.

In doing so, the team was able to more accurately determine the years in which this circular structure was built, despite it being previously thought that the structure was around 50,000 years old and built by modern humans.

Additionally, parts of the cave walls have shown clear evidence of fire damage, with some of the stalactites and stalagmites also shown to be damaged by fire, suggesting it could have been used as a Neanderthal fireplace.

Mysterious origin

It’s a good thing, too, that these ancient human ancestors decided to build this site where they did as, thanks to the calcium carbonate that soon encased it after the rudimentary walls were built, the structure still stands today, thousands of years later.

Similarly, as you can see from the accompanying video, the cave was not what you would call easily accessible, meaning that weathering effects were not complicit in the gradual crumbling of the structure.

While a fireplace has been suggested as a possible reason for its construction, archaeologist Marie Soressi, who was not involved with the research, has described the site as “mysterious” given its location deep within the cave.

‘This is very strange behaviour’

But, she adds, it also adds greater credence to our understanding that Neanderthals were by no-means the simpler people we had long believed to be the case.

“It’s becoming really clear with the Neanderthals that, given their abilities and capacities, there is not so much of a jump between them and contemporaneous modern humans,” she said in conversation with The Guardian. “But this is very strange behaviour. I’d like to understand why they did it.”

Jacques Jaubert, one of the archaeologists on the project, said that the lengths they went to that suggest this was a cultural structure.

“You don’t go underground for food or sustenance, you go for other reasons,” he said. “We call it immaterial, something cultural or symbolic, and those behaviours were, until now, associated with modern humans and not Neanderthals.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic