Neanderthals Boiled and Carved a Deer Bone 51,000 Years Ago, Archaeologists Say

Apparently Neanderthals were the only homo species in Germany 51,000 years ago, but by then they had mixed with Homo sapiens, so the muse behind this early art remains enigmatic

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The engraved giant deer bone from Einhornhöhle.
The engraved giant deer bone from Einhornhöhle.Credit: v. Minkus / NLD
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Around 51,000 years ago, somebody in Germany softened the toe bone of a giant deer by boiling it, then carved stacked chevrons onto it, archaeologists reported Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The question is, who? In their article, Dirk Leder, Thomas Terberger and colleagues explain that the unique artifact had been found at what had been the entrance to a cave in Einhornhöhle, northern Germany, and categorically identify the ancient artist as Neanderthal.

If so, it would add to indications of cultural complexity and symbolic ability in the Neanderthal, they explain.

In favor of that identification, it seems Neanderthals were the only human species in that part of Europe and Einhornhöhle specifically at the time. From that perspective, the interpretation that the engraver belonged to that hominin type would be suitably parsimonious.

Lead author Leder, of the State Service for Cultural Heritage Lower Saxony in Hannover, is confident: “The engraved bone from Einhornhöhle was made by Neanderthals,” he tells Haaretz.

It is true that no Neanderthal bones have been found at Einhornhöhle, but they have at the nearby site of Salzgitter-Lebenstedt and also at Weimar-Ehringsdorf, he adds.

If Neanderthal the artist was, it was a late Neanderthal. Fossil evidence suggests that when the bone was carved, Neanderthals were the predominant human species in Europe and thronged prehistoric Germany. But that seems to have been their peak. (This article will not bog down on what “species” means; Neanderthals and Homo sapiens – and others such as the Denisovans – could be perceived as variants within a single species.)

However, the questions hovering here go beyond what art is. We can also ask: What is a Neanderthal?

The Former cave entrance where the engraved item was recovered from. The item was found about 1 meter behind the person holding the staff.Credit: J. Lehmann / NLD

Neanderthal soup

The Homo neanderthalensis variant arose in Europe about 200,000 years ago, possibly from origins in the Middle East and possibly even in Israel itself.

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had clearly been meeting and mating going back far before somebody carved these chevrons in prehistoric Germany. Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had vibrant hybrid children; Neanderthals gained sapiens genes and we gained some of theirs. Somewhere between a negligible amount to about 2 percent of your genome derives from them.

Of minor note: We cannot be categorically confident that the late Neanderthals of Late Stone Age Germany really were alone, species-wise. There could have been others running around that we don’t know about yet.

Of major note: Anatomically modern humans had been leaving Africa for 150,000 years by the time this deer died and had a foot turned into art; and genetic evidence shows Neanderthals and modern humans met and interbred multiple times, including over 50,000 years ago.

Which means? That the artist could theoretically have been a hybrid, equipped with a set of human skills.

Even if the artist didn’t have much sapiens contribution, “We cannot exclude a similarly early exchange of knowledge between modern human and Neanderthal populations,” writes Silvia Bello of London’s Natural History Museum, in an opinion published in parallel with the main article. 

In other words, modern humans and Neanderthals rubbing shoulders and likely other body parts could have “influenced” the production of engraved toe bone from Einhornhöhle, Bello points out.

MicroCT-scans of the engraved deer bone and interpretation of the six lines in red that shape the chevron symbol. Highlighted in blue is a set of sub-parallel lines.Credit: NLD

Leder is not convinced. Modern humans only reached Europe and central Europe thousands of years after this deer passed onto the great void, he says, “so we are confident in excluding an influence by Homo sapiens.”

But while on mysteries, the archaeologists deduced that the deer toe bone had been boiled before being carved. Boiling a bone makes it softer.

But how did Neanderthals boil anything? The very earliest pottery wouldn’t be invented for tens of thousands of years. The very earliest ceramic pot seems to have been developed in China and/or Japan a bit under 20,000 years ago (and wouldn’t reach the Levant for another 10,000 years or so, and Europe even later).

So how did the Neanderthals or anybody boil a deer foot 51,000 years ago? And why?

“That is correct, Neanderthals did not have pots. Unfortunately, the question of cooking procedures is largely unresolved in Paleolithic research,” Leder says. “Some suggestions have been made about skin-lined pits filled with water that was then brought to boiling temperature using fire-heated stones.”

On the downside for that theory, this skin-pit-technique has been shown only for much later sites, he qualifies – younger than 20,000 years. On the upside, experiments have shown this method works incredibly well. Back on downside, we seldom find any pits in Neanderthal sites, he says. Clearly, Neanderthals were cooking their food, as we know from dental analyses and faunal studies. But how remains unclear, he adds.

As for why they did so, one might assume they used the foot to make soup à la chicken feet – that’s what we do with them, usually. Why else would anybody boil a bone?

Leder, however, points out that the nutritious value of a toe bone is fairly low. “The minimal bit of bone marrow that it contains would not justify the effort,” he says. “Also, we have no indication at the site that Neanderthals cracked bones open to extract bone marrow. So we can confidently say that Neanderthals at Einhornhöhle defleshed their prey and processed the meat, but did not care much about products with lower nutritious value. Quite likely they also ate vegetal food too.”

Lions and bison depicted in the Chauvet Cave, France - painted by Homo sapiens.Credit: Claude Valette

Indeed, the evidence has been mounting that, in contrast to the Neanderthals-as-basically-a-carnivore image, following in the steps of the mega-predatory Homo erectus, it seems Neanderthals ate carbs and greens as well. One wonders if they boiled their veg with deer feet to improve the flavor.

It is also possible that the bone had been boiled in order to render it easier to decorate.

The hand of the Neanderthals

The same miasma of uncertain provenance could be said to shroud the most famed example of putative Neanderthal art, which was found in caves in Spain and Portugal.

Like in the case of the deer toe, the art in question was not figurative but was clearly symbolic. A cave in Maltravieso, western Spain, features hand stencils that are 66,000 years old, while the La Pasiega Cave in Cantabria sports a ladder form drawn in red dated to 64,000 years ago.

Again, the only folks known for sure to occupy that part of the world at the time were Neanderthals and, yet again, we have to wonder if they really were alone – and if they were, if they had exposure to modern humans with their newfangled ways.

Replica of a cave painting of a giant deer from Lascaux, c. 15,000 B.C.E.Credit: HTO / Lascaux

The fact remains that the explosion of figurative artistic expression only appeared in Europe and Asia together with the arrival of modern humans. At this point, the earliest figurative art we know is in Southeast Asia: Drawings of pigs and other animals found in Sulawesi that were made about 45,500 years ago by, the archaeologists are confident, Homo sapiens.

It is possible that Neanderthals were perfectly capable of symbolic expression and complex behavior. Evidence for that has been mounting, but no smoking pig has been found on a cave wall with a categorical Neanderthal stamp on it to date.

Leder confirms that in the Neanderthal context, no figurative art or carvings comparable to these chevrons have yet been found. “The find from Einhornhöhle is unique,” he says. Chevrons have not been found at other Paleolithic sites in Europe, and the selection of a giant deer toe bone is also particular to Einhornhöhle. 

Asked whether he thinks the artist could have been a hybrid, or culturally influenced, Leder answers: “This is a complex topic that could be approached from various angles. Neanderthals could have taught Homo sapiens how to communicate via symbols instead, or cultural exchange between the two groups might have been responsible for that novel behavior. Also, there is no continuous evidence for the presence of Homo sapiens [in Germany] between 200,000-plus years ago and about 45,000 years ago, so that direct influence seems unlikely.”

Deer me

Moving on from who carved the bone to the deer itself, the toe bone came from a species called the giant deer Megaloceros giganteus, which went extinct about 7,700 years ago. The last of its kind was apparently in western Russia.

The Irish call it the Irish deer, and it was first identified there. But in fact it lived all over Eurasia and, as Bambi goes, it was a monster. The animal stood nearly 7 feet tall (2.1 meters) at the shoulder and had a set of antlers that could be 12 feet in span. Artistic reconstructions frankly make the animal look possessed but whatever the look in its eye, this was one impressive deer.

A reconstruction of the extinct giant deer, genus Megaloceros.Credit: Pavel Riha

Which leads the authors to speculate that the choice of the toe bone, from that deer, not some other local herbivore, had special meaning.

Even then, giant deer had become rare north of the Alps. The Neanderthals and other pre-sapiens hominins may have indeed harbored a respect for the rare and extraordinary of the animal kingdom. Potential examples abound: archaeologists report Neanderthals apparently cherishing eagle feathers in Spain; Neanderthals in Zaskalnaya, Crimea adorned themselves with raptor talons and feathers; and even beforehand, at Qesem Cave, a Paleolithic site occupied on and off from about 420,000 years to 200,000 years ago, hominins living there seem to have been collecting feathers. Neanderthals also seem to have buried their dead ritually, at least sometimes (it is far from clear it was a regular habit).

So behavioral complexity was there, but the question of whether the Neanderthal was capable of creating art, absent a contribution from sapiens, remains open.

“The possibility of an acquired knowledge from modern humans doesn’t undervalue … the cognitive abilities of the Neanderthals,” Bello writes. If anything, the ability to integrate innovation into one’s own culture should be recognized as behavioral complexity. And if Neanderthals really did carve those chevrons on a deer toe bone that they boiled, somehow, it brings them even closer to us.

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