Is it art? You Might Have to Ask a Neanderthal Critic.


In 2019, a team of archaeologists climbed a steep, rocky hill in central Germany and entered the collapsed entrance of the Unicorn Cave as medieval people once searched for unicorn bones. Today it is famous for its animal fossils.

For about a month, they excavated just 16 square feet and excavated dozens of ancient mammal bones from the brown soil. Most were unremarkable, either the remains of bears that once hibernated the cave, or survivors cut down from carrion hunted by Neanderthals tens of thousands of years ago.

But one specimen, which was a 2-inch-long foot bone from a giant deer, stood apart. It is carved with six thick rectangular notches in a distinctive zigzag pattern.

When Thomas Terberger, the leader of the project, first saw these cut marks, he knew they could not have been made by accident. Archaeologist at the Lower Saxony State Cultural Heritage Service in Hanover, Germany. “We noticed that it was deeper—it was something deliberately carved into the bone surface,” Terberger said.

Dr. Terberger said the bone was most likely boiled before it was carved and took about an hour and a half to make. When the bone stands upright, the stripe pattern shows the sky.

Although it is known that Neanderthals lived in and around the cave, Dr. Terberger initially thought that the carving must have been done by an early Homo sapiens. Such cultural artifacts from Neanderthals are extremely rare and often controversial. But radiocarbon dating showed the foot to be 51,000 years old—that is, several thousand years before the first modern humans appeared in the area.

Carving, as scientists published this week Nature Ecology and EvolutionIt was almost certainly made by Neanderthals. As Silvia Bello, an unrelated researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, wrote about the same The find is “one of the most complex artistic expressions of Neanderthals ever known.”

Ever since the first large Neanderthal fossil was found in another German cave in 1856, our hominin cousins ​​have been thought of as thick, silly animals. While more recent discoveries show that Neanderthals used sophisticated tools, buried their dead, and of course mated with Homo sapiens, “we’re still somewhat trapped in our 19th-century image of Neanderthals,” said Dr. terberger.

The new engraving is one of only a few examples of Neanderthal art. body ornaments, rock engravings and notched animal bones. Many scientists have growing doubts It’s about whether some of these Neanderthal works of art were actually tools and whether they got their creative tendencies from interactions with our species’ early ancestors.

Dr. Terberger said the engraving was done on the foot of a giant deer, a majestic animal that is rare in the area and has symbolic meaning for the people who killed it.

But is this striped bone carving really art? Dr. Terberger prefers to call it an intricate decoration, perhaps a precursor to the arts. But they don’t make such a decoration complex just for fun,” he said.

“Size shows that it’s something you can hold in your hand, look at, and inspire your imagination,” he said. “Everyone can decide for himself what he sees in it.”


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