Found in the EinhornhÃ¶hle cave in northern Germany, the decorated deer phalanx, or toe bone, features an etched geometric pattern and has been dated, using several techniques, to at least 51 000 years old.
This refreshes the debate on the extent to which Neanderthals, the heavily constructed Stone Age hominids that died out around 40,000 years ago, were capable of artistic expression and symbolic thought, and whether they developed these skills themselves or through interactions with early modern humans, first arriving in Europe at this time.
“The EinhornhÃ¶hle phalanx with its staggered stacked rafters represents one of the most complex cultural expressions of Neanderthals known to date,” according to one study published Monday in the journal Nature.
The German research team said the small bone appears to have no practical use and that the chevron pattern, with its three uniform parallel lines, appears to have been created intentionally, perhaps as a personal ornament.
“The choice of material, its preparation before engraving and the skillful technique used for engraving are all indicative of sophisticated expertise and great ability in bone working,” said Silvia M. Bello, researcher at the Center for Human Evolution Research, Department of Earth Sciences, at the Natural History Museum, London, in a commentary accompanying the article. She did not participate in the search.
“The presence of artistically arranged chevron-shaped incisions on the bone of a giant deer, supports the symbolic significance of this finding and raises new questions about the complexity of Neanderthal behavior.”
Boiled before decorated
The bone came from a giant deer, an animal the researchers described as “very impressive”, but also an animal that would have been very rare north of the Alps at the time. The choice of giant deer bone as the raw material underlines the special character of the object and argues that it has symbolic significance, they said.
To understand how the object was made, the researchers made their own versions using blades of Baltic flint stone and carved five bones belonging to Limousin cows. The bones were treated in different ways: one was fresh, another was room-dried and a third was air dried, while bone four was boiled once and bone five was boiled twice.
“The fresh bone … it didn’t really work. The bone was really hard. We were constantly sliding with the tools,” said Dirk Leder, associate researcher at the National Service for Cultural Heritage of Lower Saxony, Hanover , Germany, and author of the study.
Leder and his colleagues found that the boiled bones provided a smoother, “softer” surface to make controlled incisions in a way that closely resembled the original article. They said it took about an hour and a half to craft the item using a combination of cutting and scraping.
The earliest evidence of cultural innovation and artistic expression in early modern humans emerged in Africa and dates back around 100,000 years – where we see we see tools made from materials other than stone, such as bone, ivory, and woods, shell bead ornaments, and advancements such as the use of pigments, rock art, and deliberate burials.
Given its age, the study authors said they believed the carved deer bone was “an independent Neanderthal author” and was not linked to any interactions with Homo sapiens.
“Given this early exchange of genes, we cannot rule out an equally early exchange of knowledge between modern human populations and Neanderthals, which may have influenced the production of the print. EinhornhÃ¶hle artifact, âshe wrote in the comment.
“The possibility of knowledge acquired by modern humans does not, in my opinion, underestimate the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals,” she wrote.
âOn the contrary, the ability to learn, to integrate innovation into one’s own culture and to adapt to new technologies and abstract concepts must be recognized as an element of behavioral complexity.