40,000-Year-Old Raven Bone Carving Suggests Neanderthals Were Artists

Cut marks on the edge of the radius bone fragment. Ana Majkić, Francesco d’Errico, et al/PLOS One

Archaeologists have discovered a raven bone that they believe was decoratively carved by Neanderthals some 40,000 years ago. The 1.5 centimeter (0.6 inches) piece of a raven’s radius bone was found during the excavation of a cave in Crimea. This artifact might be small but it could hold deep and significant truths about the brain power of Neanderthals.

The study, recently published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, used technological analysis and 3D digital reconstructions of the bone to detail how the grooves were cut. Because some of the grooves appear to be shallower than the others, and at a very slightly different angle, the researchers think this strongly suggests that originally six grooves were cut, then the artisan went back and added two more. They claim this reveals the grooves were carved “with the goal of producing a visually consistent pattern.”

Perhaps then, these Neanderthals had an eye for art and therefore a mind capable of abstract thought.

Digital reconstructions of the bone showed that it was carved by someone with an eye for aesthetics. Ana Majkić, Francesco d’Errico, et al/PLOS One

The intellectual abilities of Neanderthals are hotly debated among paleoanthropologists. One attribute that is commonly cited as a defining difference between Neanderthal and Homo sapiens is that we are able to create art, showing that we can think abstractly and see the world beyond of our immediate experience. More recently, this idea has been challenged by the discovery of cave art in Europe possibly created by Neanderthals approximately 39,000 years ago.

Nevertheless, if this bone really was intentionally carved for visual effect, it would provide the oldest evidence that Neanderthals understood the value of symbolism and aesthetics, compared to straightforward functionality. 

Neanderthals might not have looked too clever, but this craftsmanship shows they could have been sensitive souls deep down.

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