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Archaeology: A 51,000-year-old giant deer bone engraved by Neanderthals

Nature Ecology & Evolution

July 6, 2021

The discovery of a 51,000-year-old engraved bone carved by Neanderthals is reported in a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution. This finding adds to growing evidence of sophisticated symbolic behaviour by the species.

Examples of art and symbolic behaviour have been widely found in early Homo sapiens across Africa and Eurasia. However, similar evidence that could shed light on the cognitive capacity of the Neanderthals — the closely related, extinct relatives of humans — is lacking.

Dirk Leder, Thomas Terberger and colleagues report the discovery of a giant deer toe bone that is radiocarbon dated to at least 51,000 years ago. The bone was found at the former cave entrance of Einhornhöhle in northern Germany and is incised with a stacked chevron design. Microscopic analysis and experimental replication suggest the bone was first boiled to soften it before carving. Not only is the engraving of individual lines into a chevron design indicative of conceptual imagination, but giant deer were rare north of the Alps at this time, reinforcing the idea that the engraving had symbolic meaning.

The authors conclude that the engraved bone provides evidence that Neanderthals were engaging in symbolic behaviour before Homo sapiens arrived in Central Europe. In an accompanying News & Views, however, Silvia Bello writes that given the evidence for the exchange of genes between Neanderthals and modern humans over 50,000 years ago, “we cannot exclude a similarly early exchange of knowledge between modern human and Neanderthal populations, which may have influenced the production of the engraved artefact from Einhornhöhle.” However, she goes on to state that “the capacity to learn, integrate innovation into one’s own culture and adapt to new technologies and abstract concepts should be recognized as an element of behavioural complexity”, and that “the engraved bone from Einhornhöhle brings Neanderthal behaviour even closer to the modern behaviour of Homo sapiens.”

doi: 10.1038/s41559-021-01487-z

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