Wednesday, February 28

Neanderthals used skulls as trophies

Two researchers analyze one of the bones found at the Madrid site. / CR

story time

A team of researchers has studied a series of large bison skulls that were ritually treated and left in a cave in Madrid

Julio Arrieta

Knowing for sure if Neanderthals had a symbolic capacity similar to that of our species has been one of the challenges that paleoanthropology has faced for decades. Did they create artistic expressions? Did they have ritual behaviors? These questions and their derivations have been discussed providing arguments that have been enriched with each new discovery, none definitive until now. But the excavation of a Madrid site, the Cueva de la Des-Cubierta, in Pinilla del Valle, has shed new light. The skulls of large herbivores deposited in this cavity by the Neanderthal settlers who used it in the Middle Paleolithic suggest that they handled those remains as symbolic objects, part of some kind of rite or ceremony.

This is supported by the article published in the latest issue of the journal ‘Nature Human Behaviour’, based on an investigation in which CSIC researchers have taken part in the Natural Sciences Museum of Madrid (MNCN), of the University of Valladolid. , the Complutense University of Madrid and the Archaeological and Paleontological Museum of the Community of Madrid, among other institutions.

The site, a zigzag-shaped gallery about 80 meters long, was discovered in 2009. «The Cueva Des-Cubierta does not retain its original cover. In it, an exceptional set of skulls of large herbivores has been recovered, some of them associated with small fires”, details the geologist from the Complutense Alfredo Pérez González. Among the pieces found in the cave, the skulls of bison, aurochs, deer and two rhinos of the species ‘Stephanorhinus hemitoechus’ stand out. 35 pieces in all. All were prepared by Neanderthals following a pattern: they removed the jaw and upper jaw, consumed the brains, and left the part of the skull with the horns or antlers as hunting trophies, the research shows. “An important fact is that we have been able to verify that the activity was maintained over several generations, which introduces the concept of cultural tradition that would have passed from generation to generation,” says paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga.

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Along with these skulls, tools of the Mousterian type were found, the characteristic lithic technology of the Neanderthals, in addition to the hammers that were used to make them. For the researcher from the University of Valladolid Enrique Baquedano “this behavior of the Neanderthals from a little over 40,000 years ago is not related to subsistence activities, but rather to others that provide information on aspects that are 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 pointed out. Until 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. “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,” the expert concluded.

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