Some 336 meters into the cave, the caver stumbled across something extraordinary—a vast chamber where several stalagmites had been deliberately broken. Most of the 400 pieces had been arranged into two rings—a large one between 4 and 7 metres across, and a smaller one just 2 metres wide. Others had been propped up against these donuts. Yet others had been stacked into four piles. Traces of fire were everywhere, and there was a mass of burnt bones.One truly interesting thing about this find is that it was only made with the aid of torches, which means that the Neandertals who built the structure also had them.
These weren’t natural formations, and they weren’t the work of bears. They were built by people.
Recognizing the site’s value, the caver brought in archaeologist Francois Rouzaud. Using carbon-dating, Rouzaud estimated that a burnt bear bone found within the chamber was 47,600 years old, which meant that the stalagmite rings were older than any known cave painting. It also meant that they couldn’t have been the work of Homo sapiens. Their builders must have been the only early humans in the south of France at the time: Neanderthals.
The original discovery had taken place in 1999 but, as of yet, the stalagmites had remained undated. The story continues:
After drilling into the stalagmites and pulling out cylinders of rock, the team could see an obvious transition between two layers. On one side were old minerals that were part of the original stalagmites; on the other were newer layers that had been laid down after the fragments were broken off by the cave’s former users. By measuring uranium levels on either side of the divide, the team could accurately tell when each stalagmite had been snapped off for construction.
Their date? 176,500 years ago, give or take a few millennia.Most of the burials and other artistic evidence we have from the Neandertals comes from between 50 and 70 thousand years ago, during the height of the “classic” Neandertals, in France and Germany. This discovery, which is thought by some researchers to be cultural or religious, pushes that back a good 100 thousand years.
We are learning a good deal about the hominins that occupied Europe during the Middle Pleistocene and it is surprising. The recent analysis of the German site of Schöningen, was revelatory, in that it showed hominins living in a setting where there was division of labor, highly advanced communication system, the creation of advanced bone and stone implements and complex hunting 300 thousand years ago. It is clear that, over the course of the next 200 thousand years, continued cognitive advances were made. “A plausible explanation is that this was a meeting place for some type of ritual social behavior,” says Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Museum.
More pieces of the puzzle.