51,000-Year-Old Carved Deer Bone Reveals Artistic Capabilities of Neanderthals

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A 51,000-year-old carved fragment of bone unearthed at the mouth of the Einhorn-hohle, or Unicorn Cave, in West Hertz, Germany, may prove that Neanderthals had the capacity and skills to create works of art, scientists say. The bone, believed to have belonged to a deer or other hoofed animal, was discovered in 2019, and its existence revealed to the wider world this week in a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Until the shard was found, some 150 miles southwest of Berlin, Neanderthals were thought to have been brutish creatures able to feed, clothe, and house themselves but incapable of complex thought and thus of creative activity. However, multiple dating analyses conducted upon the bone revealed that its age predates that of Homo sapiens by at least a millennium; the three parallel lines engraved in a uniform pattern upon the fragment’s face prove intentionality and thus aesthetic drive, or, as the researchers put it in their paper, “conceptual imagination.”

“It’s an idea, a planned motif that you have in your mind and translate into reality,” Thomas Terberger, a prehistoric archaeologist at the University of Göttingen and one of the paper’s coauthors, told National Geographic. “It’s the start of culture, the start of abstract thinking, the birth of art.”

Researchers believe that the fragment, which is of a toe or knucklebone, was not intended as a pendant but that it is meant to stand upright, owing to the suitability of one end of the shard as a base, and to the arrangement of the lines, which point upward from the suggested bottom. “A designation as a premeditated object that had symbolic meaning is thus the most plausible interpretation for the incised bone,” the paper’s authors concluded.

“We have an early glimpse into the mind of a Neanderthal, and we are looking at the very first step in something bigger to come,” Dirk Leder, of Lower Saxony’s State Service for Cultural Heritage told the Times. “We are looking at early representations of modern thinking.”

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