A team of researchers analyzed stalagmites and burnt bones from Bruniquel Cave in France’s Averyron region and found they dated to about 140,000 years before their cousins (we modern humans) arrived on the scene.
Rock Shelter, Bruniquel. Antique wood engraved print. Date of printing 1890. From 'Peoples of the world' by Robert Brown, published by Cassel & Co.Led by Jacques Jaubert of the University of Bordeaux, the large group of researchers reported their findings in the journal Nature.
“The regular geometry of the stalagmite circles, the arrangement of broken stalagmites and several traces of fire demonstrate the anthropogenic origin of these constructions,” they wrote. “What was the function of these structures at such a great distance from the cave entrance? Why are most of the fireplaces found on the structures rather than directly on the cave floor? Based on most Upper Palaeolithic cave incursions, we could assume that they represent some kind of symbolic or ritual behavior, but could they rather have served for an unknown domestic use or simply as a refuge? Future research will try to answer these questions.”
Bruniquel Cave closed naturally during the Pleistocene Epoch, which ended about 10,000 years ago, and had not been disturbed since people discovered it in 1990. The cave is in southwest France. Spelunkers dug a narrow chamber through 30 meters (about 100 feet) of earth at the entrance to reach the cave’s interior.
The Cavern of Bruniquel, briefly noticed by Marcel de Serres in the subjoined passage from his work 'Sur les Cavernes a Ossemens', is situated in a grand escarpment of the Jurassic limestone bordering the river Aveyron, opposite the village of Bruniquel. Image and text: Owen (1864)The stalagmite arrangements are 336 meters (1,100 feet) from the entrance. The cave has many speleothems, or minerals deposited by the action of water.
“The regular geometry of the stalagmite circles, the arrangement of broken stalagmites and several traces of fire demonstrate the anthropogenic origin of these constructions,” the authors wrote. They said they are among the oldest-known human-arranged structures.
The two rings and six piles of stalagmites range from a diameter of a half-meter (1.8 feet) to 2.6 m (8.53 feet). The stalagmites, about 400 of them, are both whole and broken and are close in size, ranging from 29.5 to 34.4 cm (11.614 inches to 13.543 inches). Altogether, the stalagmites weigh about 2.4 tons.
The scientists made a 3D reconstruction of the manmade structures.The Neanderthals burned fires inside the stalagmite rings only, not outside, a practice that puzzled the researchers. But the extinct Neanderthals were the first to use fire, about 800,000 years ago. The article states:
“A critical review of all known remains of fire in Europe concluded that Neanderthals were the first to commonly use fire, and in particular at the end of the Middle Pleistocene when they began to cook and produce new materials such as organic glue and haft tools.”The article said that the Neanderthals carried out tasks to arrange the circles, which points to social organization. The elaborateness of the circles, plus the fact that the stalagmites are partially calibrated (deliberately sized), plus the heated zones, indicate a level of social organization that researchers did not think Neanderthals were capable of, the article states.
Another thing that is different about this find as opposed to others from the Paleolithic is that people, even in Africa, have not been known to live deep in caves, though during the Late Stone Age various people were living in cave entrances. The earliest known use of deep cave use previously, also in France in Chauvet Cave, was about 36,000 years ago. There, hominids of some type made beautiful cave paintings.
Chauvet cave paintings (public domain)Neanderthals are modern humans’ closest extinct relatives. They evolved about 400,000 years ago and died out around 40,000 years ago, scientists have estimated. They lived in Europe and western and central Asia. Their brains were about equal in size to or even a bit larger than Homo sapiens’ brains.
Neanderthals used tools, lived in shelters and made clothing. They hunted large animals and also ate plants. They also fashioned ornamental or symbolic artifacts.
“There is evidence that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead and occasionally even marked their graves with offerings, such as flowers. No other primates, and no earlier human species, had ever practiced this sophisticated and symbolic behavior,” says the Smithsonian.
The U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health genome department finished sequencing the entire Neanderthal genome in 2010 (article).
Top image: Archaeologists say the circular structures discovered deep in a cave in southwestern France were constructed by Neanderthals 176,000 years ago. (Etienne Fabre / SSAC)
By Mark Miller