It has been believed that the ability to attribute concepts to symbols is exclusive to Homo sapiens, being beyond the reach of Neanderthals.
A recent analysis of the skulls of large herbivores found at the Cueva de la Des-Cubierta site, located in Pinilla del Valle (Madrid), reveals that the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) who lived in the region 40,000 years ago used them as hunting trophies. This discovery confirms that this species of hominin (upright hominid species) already had symbolic capacity. This has been determined in the study carried out by a team that includes researchers from the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) at the Museum of Natural Sciences of Madrid (MNCN), the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) and the Archaeological and Paleontological Museum of the Community of Madrid, in Spain, among other institutions.
The investigation, which began 14 years ago, focuses on the Neanderthal site discovered in 2009. “La Cueva Des-Cubierta is a long cave gallery with fallen ceilings, that is, it does not retain its original cover, in which has recovered an exceptional set of skulls of large herbivores, some of them associated with small fires”, clarifies the researcher from the Complutense University David Martín Perea, who worked at the MNCN when he carried out the study.
All the skulls in this hunting sanctuary, including those of bison (Bison priscus), aurochs (Bos primigenius), deer (Cervus elaphus) and two rhinos of the species Stephanorhinus hemitoechus, were prepared by Neanderthals following a The same pattern: they removed the mandible and upper jaw, consuming the brains and leaving the part of the skull with the horns or antlers as a hunting trophy, according to research.
“An important fact is that we have been able to verify that the activity was maintained throughout at least several generations, which introduces the concept of cultural tradition that would have passed from generation to generation,” explains Enrique Baquedano, director of the Archaeological Museum. and Paleontology of the Community of Madrid.
Along with these skulls, Mousterian stone tools, typical of Neanderthals, appeared, as well as anvils and the hammers used to fracture them. For the researcher, who directs the project together with the paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga and the geologist Alfredo Pérez González, “this behavior of the Neanderthals from just over 40,000 years ago is not related to subsistence activities but rather to others that provide information on aspects quite unknown to this species of hominin”.
“Until now, our species had been considered the only one with the ability to attribute concepts to symbols, a theory that, based on these findings, forces us to share this intellectual attribute with Neanderthals,” Baquedano points out.
Artistic recreation of a moment in the daily life of some Neanderthals. (Image: NASA)
The site of the Uncovered Cave
Up to now, there is no other archaeological site in the entire territory through which the species Homo neanderthalensis was distributed similar to that of Pinilla del Valle. The findings of the Cueva Des-Cubierta make it an exceptional place that is allowing us to unravel the keys to the behavior of this species that lived with Homo sapiens. “This study opens doors to a new concept about this species of hominin and questions our role as the only sapiens in the evolution of life on the planet,” Baquedano emphasizes.
Since the investigation began in 2002 by the current investigation team in the Calvero de la Higuera in Pinilla del Valle, an archaeological zone protected as a Site of Cultural Interest (BIC), every summer, for at least one month, carry out the excavations that have made it possible to account for this finding.
The new study is titled ‘A symbolic Neanderthal accumulation of large herbivore crania’. And it has been published in the academic journal Nature Human Behavior. (Source: MNCN / CSIC)