Taking measurements for the archaeo-magnetic survey in the Bruniquel Cave. Credit: Etienne Fabre-SSAC.
By Sarah Knapton, science editor
26 MAY 2016 • 3:56PM
Neanderthals are generally viewed as humanity’s poor relation, whose lack of social cooperation and poor intellect placed them on the path to extinction, while homo sapiens flourished.
But an astonishing new discovery suggests that they were once far more developed than our own species.
The first ever man-made structures have been found by archaeologists excavating caves in southwestern France dating from 176,500 years ago. And it appears they were constructed by Neanderthals.
The strange circular enclosures were built using stalagmites and stalactites, with chunks snapped from the cave roof and floor to form walls, in a similar way to how dry-stone walls are built today, with smaller pieces filling the gaps. They rose 15 inches in height and were 20ft wide.
Crucially, the small circular fences were found more than 1,000 feet from the cave entrance, down winding tunnels, where no daylight could have reached, meaning the builders must have already been using fire for illumination.
“Their presence away from the entrance of the cave indicates that humans from this period had already mastered the underground environment, which can be considered a major step in human modernity,” said Jacques Jaubert from France’s Bordeaux University.
“Neanderthals were inventive, creative, subtle and complex. They were not mere brutes focused on chipping away at flint tools or killing bison for food.
“What surprises us most is the ability of Neanderthals to have explored very deep into caves far from natural light.
“We believe we are providing evidence of the capacity of Neanderthals to enter a hostile, underground environment, using fire to light the way, to do things that go beyond mere survival.”
A 3D reconstruction of the structures in the Bruniquel Cave. Credit: Xavier Muth- get in situ,Archeotransfert, archeovision-SS-3D, Base photographique Pascal Mora.
The cave’s 400 stalagmite rings have been named ‘speleofacts’- literally meaning ‘cave structures.’ Many of the enclosures had been burned suggesting they had been set alight, perhaps for ritual purposes or used as early hearths for light and heat underground.
Most evidence of cave-dwelling and early ritual behaviour comes from paintings at sites like Chauvet and Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain but they all date from under 40,000 years ago, which is when modern humans first appear.
But the speleofact creators must have been Neanderthals who were not thought to have ventured far underground, nor to have mastered such sophisticated use of lighting and fire.
It is known that great apes, birds and other animals are capable of construction elaborate nests and the archaeological record contains examples of constructions made by anatomically modern humans about 20,000 years ago, such as collapsed, rounded ‘ruins’ made from mammoth bones or deer antlers.
But only a few post holes have ever been interpreted as Neanderthal, and even those were viewed as controversial by many archaeologists.
“Our results suggest that the Neanderthal group responsible for these constructions had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought for this hominid species,” added Dr Jaubert.
Drilling into the stalagmitic floor inside one of the structures in the Bruniquel Cave. Credit: Michel Soulier-SSAC.
Neanderthals lived in Eurasia from around 400,000 to 40,000 years ago, at which point anatomically modern humans moved in and took over, out-competing the native tribes. They were preserved so well because the calcification that allowed the stalagmites and ‘tites to form in the first place then covered the rings. Archaeologists believe that other structures might have existed, but have not survived.
“These structures are among the best-preserved constructions known for the whole of the Pleistocene Epoch probably because they were sealed by calcite very soon after they were erected,” said Marie Soressi, an archaeologist at the Leiden University in the Netherlands, writing in an editorial in the journal Nature where the findings were published.
“When the best evidence is found in the best-preserved context, it serves as a reminder for archaeologists of how much we depend on preservation.
“The finding of 175,000-year-old structures deep inside a cave in France suggests that Neanderthals ventured underground and were responsible for some of the earliest constructions made by hominins.”