Engraved Bone Of Prehistoric Bear Is The Oldest Example Of Neanderthal Culture

Engraved Bone Of Prehistoric Bear Is The Oldest Example Of Neanderthal Culture

Some time between 115,000 and 130,000 years ago, a Neanderthal living in a cave in Poland etched a series of markings into a bear bone. Despite consisting of just 17 lines, the engravings converted the bone into one of the oldest known symbolic items in Europe and one of the earliest to be associated with Neanderthals.

Originally discovered in the 1950s, the decorated forelimb bone has previously been cited as evidence for the emergence of advanced cognitive abilities in this extinct human species, but had never been properly studied until now. However, using techniques including microscopy and X-ray computed tomography, the authors of a new study were able to finally get a closer look at the ancient object.

While it’s obviously impossible to illuminate the thought process of the prehistoric carver, the researchers point out that “the marks found on the bone are an ordered set, the organization of which does not resemble traces associated with butchering, cutting or accidental formation.” Rather, their arrangement “clearly demonstrate the intentionality and systemic organization of the incision making process,” thus hinting at their symbolic function.

With this in mind, the authors conclude that the markings “display some qualities consistent with the principles of perceptual organization indicative of the advanced cognitive and reflective abilities of their maker.” Despite being unable to decipher these etchings, the researchers go on to explain that other similar examples have been tentatively interpreted as either “numerical notation” or decorative aspects.

And despite the presence of these other items, the authors state that Neanderthal artifacts of this nature do not show up in the archaeological record prior to 130,000 years ago, making this “one of the earliest traces of symbolic culture recorded in Eurasia.”

Coincidentally, a second study published this week has identified the earliest evidence for bear butchery by Neanderthals in western Europe. The authors analyzed dozens of bones found in a cave in France, at least seven of which belonged to cave bears while a minimum of five were attributed to brown bears.

Dated to between 130,000 and 300,000 years ago, the ancient remains display markings that are consistent with butchering and skinning, indicating that the animals were hunted for their meat and fur. 

Putting this find into context, the authors explain that the hacked bones “represent the sole evidence of large carnivore and in particular bear exploitation by Neanderthals on the middle western bank of the Rhône River and constitute one of the oldest indications of this behavior in Europe.”

The two studies have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science and Quaternary Science Reviews.

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