Bruniquel Cave (France) : Early Neanderthal constructions

Prof Chris Stringer / Natural History Museum

Source -

728The ringed walls are made from nearly 400 stalagmites that have been pulled from the ground and stacked on top of one another. Photograph: Michel Soulier/SSAC

The remarkable discovery of different-sized ‘structures’ made from purposefully broken stalagmites deep within Bruniquel Cave, south west France, would be significant for any period of time, but at around 175,000 years, these must have been made by early Neanderthals, the only known human inhabitants of Europe at this time.

The purpose of the structures and concentrated combustion zones which are mostly on the broken stalagmites rather than on the ground remain enigmatic, but they demonstrate that some Neanderthals, at least, were as much ‘at home’ deep within the cave as at its entrance.

There are examples of human habitation 30 or 40 metres into the dark zones of caves from sites of this or even greater age in Africa , but the Bruniquel occupation is some ten times deeper into the cave, and shows constructions as complex as some made by modern humans only 20 or 30,000 years ago.

Accumulations of early human bodies deep within caves are known from Rising Star Cave (South Africa, currently undated) and the Sima de los Huesos (Atapuerca, Spain, ~400ka), but the circumstances and meaning of their deposition are disputed, and there is no (Rising Star) or only loosely associated (the Sima) archaeological material with the skeletons.

The complex Bruniquel structures are well-dated to within a long cold glacial stage, and at that time the cave might have provided a temporary more temperate refuge. It is unclear to me whether there might be important associated archaeological or fossil material under unexcavated sediment or later calcitic encrustations. If there is still-buried debris from occupation, it would help us to determine whether this was a functional refuge or shelter, perhaps roofed using wood and skins, or something which had more symbolic or ritual significance.

Some of the burning must surely be associated with lighting in such a dark location, but only further discoveries from this or other sites will show us how common were such deep cave occupations in the ancient past, and what their purpose might have been.

Whatever the answers, this discovery provides  clear evidence that Neanderthals had fully human capabilities in the planning and the construction of ‘stone’ structures, and that some of them penetrated deep into caves where artificial lighting would have been essential.  

Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France

Very little is known about Neanderthal cultures1, particularly early ones. Other than lithic implements and exceptional bone tools2, very few artefacts have been preserved. While those that do remain include red and black pigments3 and burial sites4, these indications of modernity are extremely sparse and few have been precisely dated, thus greatly limiting our knowledge of these predecessors of modern humans5. Here we report the dating of annular constructions made of broken stalagmites found deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwest France. The regular geometry of the stalagmite circles, the arrangement of broken stalagmites and several traces of fire demonstrate the anthropogenic origin of these constructions. Uranium-series dating of stalagmite regrowths on the structures and on burnt bone, combined with the dating of stalagmite tips in the structures, give a reliable and replicated age of 176.5 thousand years (±2.1 thousand years), making these edifices among the oldest known well-dated constructions made by humans. Their presence at 336 metres 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.

VIDEO = Cave Structures Shed New Light on Neanderthals