It would appear that Neanderthal’s reputation is finally starting to catch up with their character. A report just published in Nature journal has done two very important things for Neanderthals. First, it shows that they were much more sophisticated than historians have depicted them and secondly, it has pushed their date of sophistication back three fold into prehistory. Until now most experts considered the oldest show of any culture and civilization by Neanderthal to be their cave art, which is only considered to go back to about 40,000 years ago.
Recently there has been a lot of new discoveries or new tests on old discoveries that have given a new image to our Neanderthal cousins. We now know that Neanderthals made tools, used fire, made art, buried their dead, and perhaps even had language. “The new findings have ushered a transformation of the Neanderthal from a knuckle-dragging savage rightfully defeated in an evolutionary contest, to a distant cousin that holds clues to our identity,” wrote Lydia Pyne in Nautilus.
The crowning jewel of the recent new discoveries is the Bruniquel Cave. The Aveyron Valley in the southwest of France is home to at least 15 prehistoric sites and the newest site on the list is the aforementioned cave with wondrous round areas designated by the intentional placement of broken off stalagmites. The site was discovered in 1990, by a young boy, whose father had noticed the air flow from the scree. Thus this young man spent the next 3 years opening a small 30 meter long entrance into the cave, which was then explored by members of the local cave club, upon seeing the importance of the discovery they brought in archaeologist Francois Rouzaud. During the initial investigation, a burnt bear bone found in the cave was carbon-dated to 47,600 years ago, making it the oldest find for Neanderthal in the area.
Now, there has been new testing that has yielded new dates. What makes this discovery so amazing is not just its date, but its sophistication of the construction in the cave. Interestingly, the new dates for the cave construction, which is ~176,500 years ago, takes us almost to the mid point of another recent discovery that has added more spice to the recipe of how hominins came and went and merged and split. A team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has pieced together the oldest mitochondrial genome known from 400,000 year old bones found in a cave in Northern Spain. One of the surprises of this study was that the individuals, thought to be the early ancestors of Neanderthal, instead were more closely related to Denisovans, a group thought to be much more prominent further East and even having origins somewhere in Asia. Anatomically speaking though the individuals do not resemble their Denisovian descendants and one theory is that the hominins from Spain may be from before a split that possibly created both Neanderthals and Denisovans. The article for the oldest DNA can be found at The Scientist and the full study report can be found in Nature.
How the DNA study plays into our finds is that it gives only 200,000 years of separation between the existence of hominins that seem to predate Neanderthal maybe by more than one or two evolutionary splits and our believed Neanderthal presence in the Bruniquel Cave with the social and cultural skills already in place to have constructed the round areas showing at least intermediate technological skill as well. However, we do not as of yet have enough answers to say that some of the ancestor hominins and their descendants species did not share the same space and time. We know that both Denisovans and Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon and another unidentified hominin species did share time and space.
This new find, which can be read in abstract in The Atlantic with the full study findings reported in Nature, has certainly opened the door for many new questions that will need to find answers and lots of possibilities for those answers.