Two mysterious stone rings that were found deep in a cave in France could possibly have been built by Neanderthals about 176,500 years ago, states a report from the Associated Press. This proves that these ancient cousins to men were not as simple as previously thought, scientists say.
The rings are structures made from hundreds of pillar-shaped stalagmites, which are mineral deposits in caves. The pillars were chopped to similar lengths and laid out in two oval patterns up to 16 inches high. They were accidentally discovered in 1990 after having been untouched for thousands of years when a rockslide closed the mouth of a cave in Bruniquel, southwest France.
Prior research has shown that the structures were created before modern humans arrived in Europe around 45,000 years ago. This means the only ones who could have created the rings were Neanderthals, which does not fit the long-held theories that these early humans were not capable of such complex and rational behavior to have worked underground and formed these patterns.
A team led by archeologist Jacques Jaubert of the Unversity of Bordeaux in France used advanced dating techniques to show that the stalagmites must have been broken off the ground some 176,500 years ago, “making these edifices among the oldest known well-dated constructions made by humans.”
“Their presence at 336 meters (368 yards) from the entrance of the cave indicates that humans from this period had already mastered the underground environment, which can be considered a major step in human modernity,” the researchers say in their study, which has been published in the online journal Nature.
Jaubert dismissed the idea that the carefully made rings, which show traces of fire, could have been made by nature or assembled by animals. The bones of wolves and bears were found near the cave entrance. He told the Associated Press,
The origin of the structures is undeniably human. It really cannot be otherwise.
Jaubert adds that the Neanderthals who made the rings must have had a “project” or a goal of sorts to have gone so deeply into a cave where there was no natural light. It is assumed they went underground in groups to create the structures, using fire to light the cave. “These are exceptional tours, certainly for extraordinary reasons we do not yet know.”
Paolo Villa, an archeologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder who was not a part of the study, says that the cave “provides strong evidence of the great antiquity of those elaborate structures and is an important contribution to a new understanding of the greater level of social complexities of Neanderthal societies.”
The researchers said that they currently have no idea what the oval structures, which measure 172 square feet and 25 square feet, could have been for, although speculation is that they were probably for symbolic or ritualistic purposes.
Wil Roebroeks, a Nenanderthal expert from the University of Liden in the Netherlands says that these structures may show only a small portion of Neanderthal culture, because most relics would have been made of organic materials and would have decayed or been destroyed thousands of years ago.
Roebroeks says, “Bruniquel cave (shows) that circular structures were a part of Neanderthals’ material culture.” He adds that the rings are “an intriguing find, which underlines that a lot of Neanderthal material culture, including their ‘architecture,’ simply did not survive in the open.” He was not involved in the study, as well.