Neanderthal sculpture found in German unicorn cave – ARTnews.com


The Einhornhöhle, or Unicorn Cave, in Germany’s Harz Mountains, takes its name from treasure hunters who believed that the fossilized remains in the dark passages belonged to unicorns. Archaeologists digging at the site recently found something almost as unlikely: a 50,000-year-old deer bone with a geometric pattern carved by the Neanderthals. The find, reported on Monday by a team of researchers from the University of Göttingen and the Lower Saxony National Heritage Office, adds to a growing body of evidence that Neanderthals created symbolic objects, possibly what we would call art.

Artifacts found at Unicorn Cave in the 1980s have proven that the site was actually a hiding place for Neanderthals during the Middle Paleolithic period (around 300,000 to 30,000 years ago). A German team of archaeologists revisited the cave in 2014 for further excavation, and in 2019, investigating the intact layers of ice age soil buried there, they found well-preserved animal bones with cut marks. Among them was the toe bone of a prehistoric (and now extinct) giant deer.

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“It showed six groves that together form a chevron-shaped decoration,” said Thomas Terberger, a prehistoric archaeologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany and one of the authors of the new study in Ecology and evolution of nature, in an e-mail to ARTnews. Radiocarbon dating has proven that the object dates back to 51,000 years ago – when Neanderthals were the only human species to roam this part of Europe – and bone analysis showed that these engravings were not butcher’s marks. (The researchers even performed some of their own experiments sculpting cow toe bones and found that the bone was probably boiled first.)

“Step by step, we learned that we not only found an exciting object, but that we are dealing with a small bone from a large Ice Age animal that was definitely decorated by the Neanderthals,” Terberger said. “From my point of view, this discovery belongs to the initial phase of the use of symbols and is on the way to making art.

The carved deer bone is just the latest evidence that Neanderthals engaged in symbolic behavior. From other discoveries around Eurasia, scientists know that our extinct cousins ​​may have mixed pigments and adorned their bodies with feathers and talons. In 2014, archaeologists reported the discovery of a geometric hashtag-like sculpture inside a Neanderthal cave in Gibraltar. But are these works art? This last discovery is not likely to settle the debate.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes, archaeologist and honorary fellow of the University of Liverpool, was not involved in the discovery of Unicorn Cave, but when asked to peer review the article, she made sure to look at the photo of the object before reading the arguments of the authors.

“It was really a ‘Wow’ moment,” Wragg Sykes told ARTnews this morning by phone. She was struck by how the lines were etched at such regular intervals and at such sharp angles. “The complex nature and structure of the markings goes beyond what we have seen in other secure Neanderthal contexts.”

But Wragg Sykes is careful with the language she uses to describe such an engraving, avoiding terms like “decoration”.

“Decoration implies that it is meant to be displayed – that’s what we don’t know about it. It was clearly produced with intent, and care was taken to ensure [the lines] are regularized. But we don’t know if there was an audience for it. When we talk about art today, the idea is always that there will be an audience for it. Personally, this is why I think we have to talk about Neanderthals having an aesthetic tradition instead of a symbolic artistic tradition.

The Einhornhöhle (Unicorn Cave), Blaue Cave.

The Einhornhöhle (Unicorn Cave), Blaue Cave.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps instead of carving a bone with the intention of exhibiting it, the Neanderthals found meaning in the act of creating such an object. In his 2020 book on Neanderthals, KinshipWragg Sykes notes that humans tend to view artistic creation as a species-defining trait, but captive chimpanzees, when given art supplies, are able to paint and modify surfaces. They even seem to display some of the same tendencies as Neanderthals, such as staying within the frame of a given canvas and appreciating symmetry.

“Most intriguing, although intensely focused while painting, [chimpanzees] often seem less interested in the resulting image, ”wragg Sykes writes in his book. “For them, aesthetics – in its original sense of being perceived and appreciated – lies in the creation, not in the final product. Art as a process of bodily and sensory engagement with materials may not be familiar to classical Western sensibilities, but many human cultures throughout time understand its transcendent power.

It is difficult to compare the work of Neanderthals to the art that anatomically modern humans made in Africa and Eurasia. From vast cave paintings to ivory carved figurines and pendants, examples of Upper Paleolithic figurative art are plentiful and have enabled archaeologists to consider this body of work as a coherent symbolic system. On the other hand, all the Neanderthal works that we have are quite abstract. The only representative works, even tentatively related to Neanderthals, are stencils showing the outlines of hands in a cave in Spain, but the age of these paintings has been hotly debated; if they’re not as old as some archaeologists have argued, they could have been created by humans.

“Will we one day find a representative sculpture? I don’t know, ”Wragg Sykes says. “But Neanderthals always surprise us.”


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