As Homo sapiens, we have always been convinced that more primitive human species like Neanderthals didn’t have enough brains to figure certain things out.
That idea might have just been turned on its head (or skull). It might have been Neanderthals who passed on ways of artistic expression to our ancestors, as a 51,000-year-old carving unearthed from the Unicorn Cave in Germany is now telling us. Symbols etched into a piece of bone were thought to have served no practical purpose — it's not a weapon or tool, but art that had some meaning which has now been lost to time. It also dates back ten thousand years before Homo sapiens arrived in Europe. So much for our self-proclaimed dominance.
Unicorn Cave (above) is also known as Einhornhöhle and was once believed to be a treasure trove of unicorn bones. Archaeologist Dirk Leder from the State Service for Culture Hertiage Lower Saxony in Hannover, Germany and his team have now found an altogether different type of unicorn. Leder co-authored a study recently published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
“This clearly shows that Neanderthals were fully capable of communication using symbols, and that their brains were wired similarly to those of our species at that time,” Leder tells SYFY WIRE. “While Neanderthal brains were structured somewhat differently, it shows that both had the aptitude for symbolic expressions and communication.”
Neanderthal brains were different from ours in some ways. Though Neanderthals had larger skulls and the gray matter to go with them, our cerebellum — which controls multiple functions ranging from physical abilities such as balance and movement to memory, learning, and language — is larger. Some scientists even believe that what was lacking in cognition and social interactions eventually drove Neanderthals to extinction. They still managed to survive for some 200,000 years before they vanished. While a larger cerebellum may enable better information processing capabilities, that doesn’t necessarily mean Homo sapiens thought of everything first.
Homo sapiens were not around anywhere in what is now Europe when the piece of bone found by Leder and his team was carved with mysterious symbols. The bone belonged to a rare species of now-extinct deer, and lab experiments revealed that it was probably boiled beforehand to make carving easier. It is still unclear what Neanderthals taught us about artistic symbolism and techniques instead of the other way around. What we do know is that after Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens interbred, cave paintings and ivory carvings started to appear in ancient Europe. The sites where this artwork was found are only connected to modern humans.
“To me, it bears the question of what this means in terms of human cognitive evolution,” Leder says. “It takes us back to one of the most essential questions [in] archaeology, among other disciplines, [and] asks: How humans became human?”
So what kind of symbol could this possibly be? No one really knows. Leder is open to many interpretations, including an abstract figurine of a human head and shoulder, braided hair, or mountains. The problem is that even though there have been other findings which suggest Neanderthals had a spoken language, there is no translation. Whether symbols like this were glyphs from a written language remains unknown. They were not nearly as sophisticated as the cuneiform of the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia or the more complex hieroglyphic writing system of the ancient Egyptians, but this carving might explain the origins of written language.
Neanderthals are known to have carried out funerary rites, so it is possible that what they left behind could have been a sort of memorial object or talisman for the afterlife. Ancient Greeks and Romans buried their dead with coins to pay the ferryman of the underworld. Ancient Egyptians wrapped mummies with amulets and left the Book of the Dead in their tombs as a guide to the hereafter. Maybe this carving was meant for something similar, but there is no translation. What Leder can see is that Neanderthals were probably not the caveman stereotype we often use as an insult.
“The engraved bone from Einhornhöhle is among few well-dated and clearly intentional symbolic objects connected to Neanderthals, and supports the notion that Neanderthals were cognitively very similar to Homo sapiens,” he says. “They were certainly more advanced than previously acknowledged.”
Our species is going to have to find a better insult than “Neanderthal” from now on.