In at least one part of Stone Age Europe, Neandertals were lords of the rings. Neandertals are close evolutionary cousins of modern humans. Some 176,500 years ago, these ancient folk built large, circular structures, researchers now report. Found on the floor of a cave in southern France, the circles had been built from broken-off mounds of minerals. These natural stone mounds are known as stalagmites (Stah-LAG-mytes).
Long ago, Neandertal groups explored the dark recesses of Bruniquel Cave. There, they assembled stalagmite pieces into complex configurations, reports Jacques Jaubert. He is an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France. He and his colleagues described their findings online May 25 in Nature.
Scientists found two ring-shaped formations and four smaller arrangements. All had been built from stalagmites. The circles are situated 336 meters (1,100 feet) inside the cave. All display traces of ancient fires on chunks of stalagmites.
These ancient constructions were discovered in the early 1990s. However, until 2013, scientists had only limited access to the cave. Jaubert’s team eventually took samples from six stalagmites. They came from the two circular structures. The scientists dated the age of these creations based on the decay of uranium, an element in the samples. Being radioactive, the uranium atoms split into smaller atoms at known rates. With careful measurements and math, scientists can use that knowledge to determine the age of an object like a stalagmite.
Neandertals inhabited Europe and Asia from around 400,000 to 40,000 years ago. The new analyses date the building of the stalagmite circles at around 176,500 years ago. Homo sapiens first evolved during that same time. But our species did not leave Africa until about 60,000 years ago. That leaves Neandertals as the likely builders of the cave circles.
Neandertals in Europe had notable social behaviors and technical skills. Indeed, some scientists have argued that these traits roughly equaled those of humans living at the same time in Africa. The Bruniquel Cave structures provide further evidence of this, says Jaubert. His group plans to probe whether the cave circles might have been used in rituals or just served some practical purpose.
Additional finds might also point to whether Neandertals regularly made stalagmite caves structures, says Marie Soressi. She wrote a commentary about the new finding in Nature. An archaeologist, she works at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Jean-Jacques Hublin doesn’t find it surprising that large-brained Neandertals explored caves and assembled structures out of stalagmites. He is a paleoanthropologist. He works at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Neandertals clearly adapted to their environment. Fossil tooth analyses, for instance, indicate that Neandertals altered their diets to exploit different types of foods. This is important because the foods that were available changed over several hundred thousand years. During that time, climates and habitats shifted in Western Eurasia. That altered what plants would grow in areas where Neandertals lived.
Hublin points out that Neandertals still differed from our species in important ways. H. sapiens, for instance, did not alter their diets so much after leaving Africa, despite moving to new habitats. Members of our species consistently ate many of the same types of edible plants. Hublin suspects that’s because humans made a greater variety of stone tools than Neandertals did. And those tools allowed humans to continue to exploit many of the foods that they preferred.
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anthropology The study of humankind. A social scientist who studies different societies and cultures is called an anthropologist.
archaeology (also archeology) The study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. Those remains can range from housing materials and cooking vessels to clothing and footprints. People who work in this field are known as archaeologists.
atom The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.
climate The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.
decay The process (also called “rotting”) by which a dead plant or animal gradually breaks down as it is consumed by bacteria and other microbes. (for radioactive materials) The process whereby a radioactive isotope — which means a physically unstable form of some element — sheds energy and subatomic particles. In time, this shedding will transform the unstable element into a slightly different but stable element. For instance, uranium-238 (which is a radioactive, or unstable, isotope) decays to radium-222 (also a radioactive isotope), which decays to radon-222 (also radioactive), which decays to polonium-210 (also radioactive), which decays to lead-206 — which is stable. No further decay occurs. The rates of decay from one isotope to another can range from timeframes of less than a second to billions of years.
element (in chemistry) Each of more than one hundred substances for which the smallest unit of each is a single atom. Examples include hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, lithium and uranium.
Eurasia That part of the globe covered by Europe and Asia.
evolutionary An adjective that refers to changes that occur within a species over time as it adapts to its environment. Such evolutionary changes usually reflect genetic variation and natural selection, which leave a new type of organism better suited for its environment than its ancestors. The newer type is not necessarily more “advanced,” just better adapted to the conditions in which it developed.
fossil Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils. The process of forming fossils is called fossilization.
habitat The area or natural environment in which an animal or plant normally lives, such as a desert, coral reef or freshwater lake. A habitat can be home to thousands of different species.
Homo sapiens The species of hominid to which all living humans belong.
Neandertal A species (Homo neanderthalensis) that lived in Europe and parts of Asia from about 200,000 years ago to roughly 28,000 years ago.
paleoanthropology The study of the culture of ancient people or human-like folk, based on the analysis of remnants, artifacts or markings created or used by these individuals. People who work in this field are known as paleoanthropologists.
radioactive An adjective that describes unstable elements, such as certain forms (isotopes) of uranium and plutonium. Such elements are said to be unstable because their nucleus sheds energy that is carried away by photons and/or and often one or more subatomic particles. This emission of energy is by a process known as radioactive decay.
ritual A religious or solemn ceremony that would have involved performing a series of actions in a particular order.
species A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.
stalagmite An icicle-shaped mound of mineral deposits. They form when those minerals precipitate out of water dripping onto the floor of a cave. Their upper tip tends to be flat or rounded, not pointed.
Stone Age A prehistoric period when weapons and tools were made of stone or of materials such as bone, wood, or horn. This period lasted millions of years and came to an end around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
uranium The largest naturally occurring element known. It’s called element 92, which refers to the number of protons in its nucleus. One form (isotope) is radioactive, which means it decays into smaller particles. The other form is stable.
J. Jaubert et al. Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature. Published online May 25, 2016. doi: 10.1038/nature18291.
M. Soressi. Neanderthals built underground. Nature. Published online May 25, 2016. doi: 10.1038/nature18440.