A group of Neanderthals living in central Spain filled their cave with the skulls of steppe rhinoceroses and other large mammals, probably for some mysterious symbolic purpose. Describing the impressive collection of crania in a new study, researchers say the finding could help shed some light on the strange spiritual world of our extinct cousins.
While plenty of Neanderthal caves have been discovered in the past, virtually all of the evidence found in these dwellings has been related to mundane activities like hunting or tool-making. According to the study authors, “to date, no site exclusively related to symbolic activity has been identified in the Neanderthal archaeological record.”
However, while excavating a cave known as Cueva Des-Cubierta, the archaeologists came across 35 large animal skulls, all of which featured either horns or antlers. The assemblage included crania belonging to 28 bovine animals such as bison and aurochs, five deer, and two rhinoceroses.
Neanderthal teeth and tools located nearby indicate that the ancient humans were resident in the cave when the skulls were collected.
Finding a bunch of old bonces inside a cave is highly unusual, and modern hunter-gatherers rarely take the heads of their prey back to camp due to their weight and lack of meat. The researchers therefore conclude that “the introduction of the crania, and not of other parts of the carcasses of greater nutritional interest, into the Cueva Des-Cubierta thus seems to have been deliberate and not related to subsistence.”
“Rather, it seems more related to their symbolic use,” they say.
This idea is supported by the fact that very few animal teeth or fragmented bones were found in the cave, indicating that the creatures were butchered elsewhere and that only their severed heads were brought inside. Yet with no such skull stashes found in any other Neanderthal cave, the researchers are unable to explain why this particular group took to this strange practice.
As far as we know, Neanderthals didn’t perform any rituals with animal crania, and the authors are left scratching their heads as to the symbolic meaning of this gnarly skull cave. “It is not until the arrival of anatomically modern humans […] that the probable use of crania in ritual or symbolic contexts becomes more evident,” they write.
Noticing that all of the skulls still had their horns and antlers intact, the researchers speculate that the crania may have served as hunting trophies. “However, other interpretations cannot be ruled out, such as a link with ritual and fire […] some expression of the symbolic relationship between Neanderthals and the natural world, or some kind of initiatory rite or propitiatory magic,” they conclude.
Whatever they were doing with those old heads, it seems the Neanderthals of Cueva Des-Cubierta maintained the tradition for quite some time, as animal crania were found throughout an entire layer of sediment that would have taken many years to accumulate. “[This] indicates that the site’s Neanderthal occupants repeated the same type of behaviour over a long period (years, decades, centuries or even millennia),” write the authors.
Such sustained head hoarding “suggests the transmission of this behavior between generations, which would be consistent with its interpretation as a cultural phenomenon.”
The study has been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.