A Neanderthal Saw a Pretty Rock and Collected It, Archaeologist Suggests

Out-of-place stone in sandstone Neanderthal cave in Croatia wasn't a tool and had no business being there: Neanderthals had sense of aesthetic, archaeologists conclude.

Arrow indicates edge of the rock with the reddish-brown limonite staining, that was found in the Neanderthal site of Krapina, Croatia.
David Frayer, University of Kansas

A rock possibly collected by a Neanderthal because it was pretty is being touted as the latest evidence that the extinct species had a sense of aesthetic.

Specifically, the archaeologists found a brownish piece of split limestone with darker veins in Krapina, a site in Croatia, that stood out from everything else in the cave. They concluded that apparently a Neanderthal collected the thing 130,000 years ago, just because.

"It is an interesting rock," says David Frayer, a professor emeritus of anthropology who was part of the study. The thing, about five inches long, four inches high and about a half-inch thick, was bereft of striking platforms or other areas of preparation on the rock's edge.

"The fact that it wasn't modified, to us, it meant that it was brought there for a purpose other than being used as a tool," Frayer says – and believes it adds to other evidence that Neanderthals were capable of incorporating symbolic objects into their culture, irrespective of whatever mixing may or may not have taken place with Homo sapiens.

Previously, in the same place, Krapina, and from the same time, 130,000 years ago, Frayer and others found eight fossilized white-tailed eagle talons that showed signs of being processed to wear as jewelry, possibly as a necklace or bracelet. The marks on the talons aside, Frayer pointed out that nowhere else had eagle talons been collected in such numbers – clearly the Neanderthals had been collecting then purposefully. "These remains clearly show that the Krapina Neanderthals made jewelry well before the appearance of modern humans in Europe," he wrote in Plos One.

Now it seems the ornamented Neanderthals had other aesthetic predilections as well.

Clamshell view of Side A and B showing black dendrites against the background of the brown mudstone found in the Neanderthal site of Krapina, Croatia.
David Frayer, University of Kansas

Rock-hound of another species

Actually the unusual rock had been found at the Krapina Neanderthal site in Croatia more than 100 years ago, but has now been re-examined. The group's conclusions, that it was deliberately collected were published in Comptes Rendus Palevol, with Davorka Radovcic, Croatian Natural History Museum curator, as lead author and Frayer as corresponding author.

Other evidence that Neanderthals had aesthetic sensibilities include collections of shells found in Iberia, some of which had been perforated and painted. It bears noting that the Iberian site is younger, dating to around 50,000 years ago.

The Krapina cave is sandstone, so the split limestone rock stuck out as not originating from the cave, Frayer said. None of the more than 1,000 lithic items collected from Krapina resemble the rock.

Microscopic image of limonite stains on the limestone rock found in the Neanderthal site of Krapina, Croatia.
David Frayer, University of Kansas

A small triangular flake was found that fits with the rock, but the break appeared to be fresh. It probably happened after the specimen was deposited into the sediments of the Krapina site, possibly when it was found around 1900, he speculates.

The look of the rock also caught the researchers' eye as many inclusions or black lines on it stood out from the brown limestone. Perhaps that is what made the Neanderthal want to collect it in the first place. The stone for quite a lot of tools made by primitive men seem to have been chosen based on color.

A microscopic view of some dendritic forms on the limestone rock found in the Neanderthal site of Krapina, Croatia.
David Frayer, University of Kansas

They suspect a Neanderthal took the rock from a site a few kilometers north of Krapina, where such biopelmicritic grey limestone exists.

"It adds to the number of other recent studies about Neanderthals doing things that are thought to be unique to modern Homo sapiens," Frayer said. "We contend they had a curiosity and symbolic-like capacities typical of modern humans."