Our prehistoric cousins, the Neanderthals, were not just knuckle-dragging cavemen.
A new study published in Nature shows they built stone structures deep inside caves in the south of France, and the revelation is rapidly changing our views on Neanderthals.
Locals found the structures in the 1990s, and the archaeologist that first studied them, Francois Rouzaud, hypothesized Neanderthals were responsible, but did not have a chance to return to the cave before his death in 1999.
The new research removes all doubt about these precision-built structures, showing they’re three times older than previously thought — squarely placing them on a timeline before modern humans arrived in Europe, and when Neanderthals occupied the region.
In 1992, French teenager Bruno Kowalsczewski gained access to Bruniquel Cave, after three years of moving rocks from a nearby scree (his father had noticed air escaping through the pile of rocks), reports The Atlantic. He invited local cavers to explore the cave, and 336 meters (about 1100 feet) in, they made an incredible find: two ringlike structures made of broken stalactites and stalagmites, the conical structures formed by minerals dripping from cave ceilings or onto cave floors.
Initial radiocarbon estimates from Rouzaud put the structures at 47,600 years old, meaning that they had to have been assembled by the only humans in Europe at the time: our stocky, broad-browed cousins, the Neanderthals. Rouzaud speculated that the structures could have been used for prehistoric rituals — besides the rings and burned animal bones, there wasn’t any evidence of anyone actually living in the caves.
After Rouzard’s death, research on Bruniquel Cave ceased, until 2013, when geologist Sophie Verheyden visited the region on vacation. Verheyden, who specializes in stalagmites at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences questioned the 47,600 year estimate, since radiocarbon dating is only accurate up to 50,000 years.
She decided that dating the broken mineral deposits themselves might give a more precise date.
Following a trip into the cave with fellow stalagmite researcher Dominique Genty and archaeologist Jacques Jaubert, who also authored the new study, Verheyden used uranium-series dating to blow the former date out of the water.
The researchers removed samples from the stalagmites, finding two distinct layers: deposits from before the Neanderthals broke off the stalagmites, and deposits that dripped onto the bottoms their broken bases. The age discrepancy between the two layers revealed that the stone ring structures were about 176,500 years old.
What’s more, charred marks reveal that the Neanderthals used fire to precisely heat-shock and snap off the stalagmites from the ground. This was not one person’s work — the study suggests it took a lot of coordination between many individuals.
As the researchers write:
“It concerns elaborate constructions that have never been reported before, made with hundreds of partially calibrated, broken stalagmites (speleofacts) that appear to have been deliberately moved and placed in their current locations, along with the presence of several intentionally heated zones.”
This reworks any previous notion of Neanderthals as dumb, lumbering casualties to modern man’s clear evolutionary superiority. They weren’t just holding our place until we got to Europe, they were wielding fire deep inside caves and building complex structures that may have served ritualistic purposes.
One thing’s for sure, our Neanderthal cousins deserve a lot more of our respect.