176,500 years ago, long before modern humans left Africa for the Eurasian continent, a group of Neanderthals performed an elaborate ritual deep within Bruniquel Cave in a region we know today as southern France. The Neanderthal group squeezed hundreds of stalagmites from the cave floor to build intricate circular structures, their work illuminated only by firelight. Discovered by archaeologists in the 1990s, the cave system is so vast that many of its great treasures are hidden far from the entrance, suggesting it has been thoroughly explored and likely inhabited for some time. This new part of the cave, only recently analyzed, adds to our understanding of Neanderthal social life.
Neanderthal structure was largely untouched for tens of thousands of years, with the exception of a few hibernating bears. They talk about their discovery Nature, a group of archaeologists say there’s no doubt the structures were deliberately man-made, especially since there’s evidence that the stalagmites were ripped from the cave floor and stacked in circular patterns. Burn marks on the 400 or so bricks show a fire started inside the building and one area contains burnt bones. The bones could mean this was a party place, but the hard-to-reach location and the nature of the design suggest a more symbolic use. Based on the fire patterns, it appears that the structures themselves were designed to catch fire, appearing to create circles of flaming stone in the otherwise pitch-black cavern.
There is little evidence of human activity in space, other than the unusual structures, which bear no resemblance to the art or funerary rituals associated with more recent Neanderthal dwellings we’ve discovered. Most of the Neanderthal sites are from the past 50,000 years and contain paintings, ocher for body decoration and tombs full of flowers. Some contain complex tools created after contact with modern humans from Africa, and it’s often hard to tell if they were made by Neanderthals, homo sapiens, or a combination of both. After all, there was a period of about 10,000 years when Neanderthals and homo sapiens coexisted in Europe, and we know that they formed families and had children together.
What makes this site so extraordinary is not only its great age, but also the certainty that it was created by Neanderthals whose culture had not yet been altered by modern man. This structure represents pure Neanderthal expression. It supports the theory that human culture and symbolism evolved over the past 200,000 years in different populations around the world. Although modern humans from Africa came to dominate the world after entering Eurasia about 80,000 years ago, evidence from Bruniquel Cave suggests that humans outside Africa were developing their own symbolic systems as well.
As for what those Neanderthals did long ago with their circles of flaming stone structures, there are no easy answers. “We might assume they represent some kind of symbolic or ritual behavior, but would they rather have served for an unknown domestic use or simply as a refuge? Future research will attempt to answer these questions,” the researchers write. What we know for sure is that this discovery is “unprecedented”. It shows that early humans were able to live deep in a cave — or at least gather together — by providing their own lighting. In addition, the structure itself is so extensive that the archaeologists conclude, “The Neanderthal group responsible for these structures had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought for this hominin species.”
Nature2016. DOI: 10.1038/nature18291