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51,000-year-old Engraved Giant Deer Bone Discovered in the Harz Mountains

Artifacts found in the Einhornhöhle cave in northern Germany are the subject of a research project involving experts from Freie Universität Berlin and shine a light on the cognitive abilities of our Neanderthal ancestors

№ 150/2021 from Aug 04, 2021

A discovery made by a research team in a cave in Lower Saxony, northern Germany, suggests that Neanderthals were not merely a primitive subspecies of archaic humans – a commonplace belief ever since their first fossil remains were found in the nineteenth century. The team from the State Service for Cultural Heritage Lower Saxony, in collaboration with the association Unicornu fossile e. V. (run by Dr. Ralf Nielbock), Freie Universität Berlin, and other institutions, have published an article in the scientific journal Nature Ecology and Evolution about the recent discovery in Einhornhöhle, a cave in the Harz Mountains. Their findings provide fascinating insights into the mental capabilities of Neanderthals, the genetically closest species to Homo sapiens. The Neanderthal’s ability to make tools and weapons has long been proven – but were they also able to produce more sophisticated ornaments, jewelry, or even art? The research team led by Professor Dr. Thomas Terberger from the State Service for Cultural Heritage Lower Saxony has been able to get to the bottom of this question.

Within the framework of this project, which has been supported by the Ministry for Science and Culture of Lower Saxony since 2019, researchers have succeeded in yielding well-preserved archaeological layers from the Neanderthal era at the collapsed cave entrance. A rather inconspicuous foot bone from an animal found at the site proved to be a sensation, as an angular pattern made up of six notches was revealed when the sediments were removed from it.

Excavation director Dr. Dirk Leder soon realized that these were not butchery marks, but instead a decorative engraving. He conducted experiments using the foot bones of cattle together with Dr. Raphael Herrmann from the University of Göttingen. They found that the bone had to be boiled first before the pattern could be carved into the softened bone surfaces using stone implements, a process that took about one-and-a-half hours.

With the aid of Dr. Matthias Hüls from the Leibniz Laboratory at the University of Kiel, they used radiocarbon dating to determine that the engraved bone is over 51,000 years old. This is the first time that it has been possible to reliably date an object decorated by a Neanderthal using this method. Until now, the only decorative objects from the era of the last Neanderthals came from France. However, these 40,000-year-old artifacts are considered by many researchers to be mere imitations because modern humans had already expanded into parts of Europe by this time. Decorative objects and small ivory sculptures from contemporaneous cave sites inhabited by Homo sapiens have also been found in the Swabian Alps of Baden-Württemberg, southwestern Germany.

Gabriele Russo from the University of Tübingen, with support from the Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim, was able to determine that the engraved foot bone came from a giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus). The research team believes it is no mere coincidence that the Neanderthal chose to engrave a bone from this formidable antlered animal.

The age of the recent discovery thus substantiates the hypothesis that Neanderthals – who existed thousands of years in Europe before the emergence of Homo sapiens – were able to engrave patterns on bones and even communicate using symbols. This corroborates the idea that the Neanderthal was able to engage in symbolic behavior and had a creative sense of imagination. The bone from the Harz Mountains is therefore the oldest decorative object to have ever been found in Lower Saxony and is considered one of the most important discoveries from the Neanderthal era in Central Europe.

Dr. Philipp Hoelzmann at the Institute of Geographical Sciences at Freie Universität conducted sediment analysis to determine the geochemical and mineralogical content of the layers. Hoelzmann says, “The sediments from Einhornhöhle with embedded fossilized remains can be seen as an extremely important climate and environmental archive, as deposits with such incredibly well-preserved bones are extremely rare for the Neanderthal period.”

Further Information

Contact at Freie Universität Berlin

Dr. Philipp Hoelzmann, Institute of Geographical Sciences at Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838- 70635, Email: philipp.hoelzmann@fu-berlin.de


D. Leder/ R. Hermann/ M. Hüls/ G. Russo/ P. Hoelzmann, R. Nielbock/ U. Böhner/ J. Lehmann / M. Meier / A. Schwalb/ A. Tröller-Reimer/ T. Koddenberg, and T. Terberger, A 51,000-year-old engraved bone reveals Neanderthals’ capacity for symbolic behavior. Nature Ecology & Evolution. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-021-01487-z

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