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Archaeologists Baffled By Mysterious Neanderthal Structure

An international team of archaeologists in France have recently dated a Neanderthal-built structure that has been isolated deep within a cave for over 175,000 years. The team’s findings, published in the journal Nature, describe a mysterious ringed structure created from over 400 broken stalagmites.

A 3-D reconstruction of the site, showing the ringed structures.

A 3-D reconstruction of the site, showing the ringed structures.

The article states that the curious semicircles are now the most advanced structure thought to be the work of Neanderthals, as well as one of the oldest human constructions:

Uranium-series dating of stalagmite regrowths on the structures and on burnt bone, combined with the dating of stalagmite tips in the structures, give a reliable and replicated age of 176.5 thousand years (±2.1 thousand years), making these edifices among the oldest known well-dated constructions made by humans.  

The stalagmites have been arranged throughout the cave in large semi-circles over 6 meters across. This makes the finding even more unique, as archaeologists haven’t previously thought Neanderthals capable of construction or building of any kind.

An archaeologist surveys the site.

An archaeologist surveys the site.

The researchers believe that this could have been some sort of ritualistic site, since there is evidence of burning on each of the stalagmites. Other theories contend that this might have been a Neanderthal hearth, kitchen, or perhaps a defensive structure to protect against cave bears.   

Neanderthal expert Marie Soressi of Leiden University in the Netherlands says that this discovery might change current thinking about Neanderthal behavior:

We have by now many different lines of evidence to show that Neanderthals, and even Neanderthals 200,000 years ago, had cognitive abilities not so different from our direct ancestors.

Despite being the home for the curious stalagmite construction, this cave is also unusual for a Neanderthal site due to how far underground it is found. The site, found in Bruniquel Cave in southwest France, lies over 330 meters underground. The cave was first discovered in 1990 by a French archeologist who died before the site could be fully explored and researched. This new expedition is the first to delve back into Bruniquel Cave and began studying the mysterious stalagmite rings in over 20 years.

Neanderthals are thought to have died out between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago, around the same time modern Homo sapiens appeared. There is still debate on what the nature of the relationship between the two species was and the extent of possible interbreeding that might have occurred.