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A 51,000-year-old bone reveals the symbolic ability of a Neanderthal

A 51,000-year-old bone reveals the symbolic ability of a Neanderthal

51,000 years ago, a Neanderthal deer bone was engraved with a chevron design, a finding that shows they were able to create symbolic expressions before the arrival of “Homo sapiens” in central Europe, according to a study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The bone of a giant deer’s hoof, found at the ancient entrance to the Einhornhöhle Cave, in northern Germany, indicates a slit with a stacked chevron design (in the form of spikes), the study signed by German experts indicates.

To date, numerous examples of symbolic art and behavior have been found in early ‘Homo sapiens’ from Africa and Eurasia, however similar evidence that could shed light on the cognitive ability of Neanderthals, close relatives of humans, is lacking.

The research, led by Dirk Lieder of the Lower Saxony (Germany) State Department of Cultural Heritage, adds to the growing evidence that this species had a complex symbolic behaviour.

The research notes that “it is very likely that Neanderthals were aware of symbolic meaning” and this discovery shows that “they were able to create symbolic expressions before ‘Homo sapiens’ reached Central Europe.”

The discovery came from a context that appears to be Middle Paleolithic associated with Neanderthals and “demonstrates that conceptual imagination, as a prerequisite for forming individual lines into a coherent design, was present,” the authors write.

Microscopic analyzes and experimental replicas indicate that the bone was boiled to soften it prior to carving. The engraving of individual stripes, in a chevron design, is not only indicative of conceptual imagination, but giant deer were rare north of the Alps at the time, “reinforcing the idea that the engraving had a symbolic meaning.”

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In an article also published in the journal, Silvia Bello, of the Center for Human Evolution Research at the Natural History Museum in London, cites evidence of gene exchange between Neanderthals and modern humans more than 50,000 years ago.

Thus, “we cannot rule out the early exchange of knowledge between modern humans and Neanderthals, which may have influenced the production of the Einhornhall excavated artifact.”

In any case, the ability to learn, integrate innovation into one’s culture and adapt to new technologies and abstract concepts “must be recognized as an element of behavioral complexity”.

Thus, the chiseled bone of Einhornhole “brings the behavior of Neanderthals closer to the behavior of modern humans” Homo sapiens.