A recent discovery of a bone ornament in Einhornhöhle cave in the northern part of Germany has shed new light on how creative Neanderthals were. An ancient toe bone (also called a phalanx) belonging to a giant deer had geometric patterns engraved into it that date back at least 51,000 years.
It is believed that this is the oldest ever work of art associated with Neanderthals. Other ancient items have been found connected to Neanderthals such as eagle talons that were made into pendants and old cave paintings, but their ages are still being disputed.
This discovery is very significant in regards to learning more information about the creativity of Neanderthals since there has been a lot of debate on this topic. The study read in part, “The phalanx from Einhornhöhle with its stacked offset chevrons represents one of the most complex cultural expressions in Neanderthals known so far.” Since the chevron design on the bone also contained three uniform parallel lines, it is believed that it was intentionally created as a possible ornament.
In order to get a better understanding of how the ornament was created, the researchers attempted to make their own version of it. The first thing they did was attempt to recreate the ornament with stone blades from Baltic flint and carved five Limousin cow bones that were all treated differently (fresh, room dried, air dried, boiled once, and boiled twice).
Dirk Leder, who is a research associate at the State Service for Cultural Heritage Lower Saxony, Hannover, Germany, explained that the fresh bone was extremely difficult to work on as the tools were always slipping off of it. They realized that the boiled bones provided a much softer “mellow” surface to carve with the finished product looking quite similar to the original. Furthermore, it took them approximately 1.5 hours to complete the engravings by scraping and cutting the bone.
Silvia M. Bello, who is a researcher at the Centre for Human Evolution Research, Department of Earth Sciences, at the Natural History Museum in London but was not involved with the study, described the intention behind the creation, “The choice of material, its preparation before carving and the skillful technique used for the engraving are all indicative of sophisticated expertise and great ability in bone working,” adding, “The presence of incisions artistically arranged in a chevron pattern on the bone of a giant deer, supports the symbolic meaning of this find and raises new questions about how complex Neanderthal behavior might have been.”
Even though Homo sapiens arrived in Europe at the same time that Neanderthals were there and they did interact with one another, it is believed that the carved deer bone was of “independent Neanderthal authorship” and had no link to Homo sapiens. (A picture of the bone ornament can be seen here.)
The study was published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution where it can be read in full.