Neanderthals are often portrayed as the heavy-browed, lumbering "caveman" cousin of Homo sapiens – all brawn, no brain. However, a new discovery further highlights that this old image is simply not accurate. Just like Homo sapiens, Neanderthals created artworks over 50,000 years ago, showing they have a clear grasp of abstract thought and highly complex behavior.
As reported in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, the discovery comes in the form of a carved toe bone from a giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus), an extinct species of deer in Eurasia that’s comparable to a moose in size. The bone, radiocarbon dated to at least 51,000 years ago, was found at the former cave entrance of Einhornhöhle in the Harz Mountain of northern Germany. When this cave was explored centuries ago, a rumor started that it contained the remains of unicorns, but we now know that the most mysterious species to frequent this cave were, in fact, Neanderthals.
The giant deer bone simply features a number of straight incisions artistically arranged in a chevron pattern. This might not sound like a prehistoric masterpiece, but the act of creating such an object requires a high level of conceptual imagination and cognitive ability. After all, we haven't seen our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, indulge in this kind of behavior.
Furthermore, Neanderthals appear to have used some complex skills to craft this item. Microscopic analysis and experimental replication suggest the bone was first boiled to soften it before carving. The researchers also note that giant deer were rare north of the Alps at this time, indicating that this object had some kind of special significance.
Neanderthals lived in Eurasia between about 430,000 and 40,000 years ago, while the earliest anatomically modern humans emerged about 300,000 years ago. However, it wasn’t until around 100,000 years ago that we saw humans creating art and showing accumulative innovation. It started with shell bead ornaments just over 100,000 years ago and eventually snowballed into an explosion of carvings, cave paintings, and other artistic displays by around 40,000 years ago.
Neanderthals were previously assumed to lack the cognitive abilities to pull off such complex feats, but a number of discoveries in recent decades have shown that our extinct cousins were perhaps on a similar level to us. Researchers have previously discovered a 40,000-year-old eagle talon necklace fashioned by Neanderthals and dozens of early cave paintings dating over 64,000 years old. That said, most early signs of artistic behavior tend to be attributed to Homo sapiens rather than Neanderthals.
The question remains, however: did the artistic skills held by Neanderthals and Homo sapiens evolve in parallel? Or is this an indication of shared knowledge between the close relatives? Either way, it suggests Neanderthals certainly possessed a remarkable brain, capable of sophisticated symbolic behavior – perhaps not too dissimilar to ours.
Writing in an accompanying opinion article to the study, titled "Boning up on Neanderthal art,” Dr Silvia M Bello from the Natural History Museum in London explains: "Given this early exchange of genes, we cannot exclude a similarly early exchange of knowledge between modern human and Neanderthal populations, which may have influenced the production of the engraved artefact from Einhornhöhle."
"The possibility of an acquired knowledge from modern humans doesn’t undervalue, in my opinion, the cognitive abilities of Neanderthal,” she adds. "On the contrary, the capacity to learn, integrate innovation into one’s own culture and adapt to new technologies and abstract concepts should be recognized as an element of behavioural complexity."