A couple of years ago I pointed to a news article about archaeological work at Descubierta Cave, Spain: “Link: Neandertal burial ritual with antler hearths”. Last year Juan-Luis Arsuaga and coworkers presented on the work at the European Society for Human Evolution conference.
It sounds like a very interesting case because of the overall context – human remains, with nearby small hearths, horn cores and antlers of numerous animals.
Sandra Ackerman has written an article for American Scientist that reports on the conference talk, as well as other recent work on Neandertals: “Neanderthals Reenvisioned”.
How to explain such a bizarre assemblage? In a presentation at the conference, Arsuaga laid out his research team’s reasoning: “This association could have been produced by chance, but we consider this improbable, given the preponderance of horns; also, the presence of fire points to an anthropogenic origin.” He continued, “Could it have been subsistence? There is no evidence of human consumption.” As another possibility, it might perhaps have been functional—but we know Neanderthals didn´t use organic substances such as horn, antler, or bone as raw material for implements or ornaments. Moreover, there’s no evidence, such as partly worked bones or a concentration of bone fragments, to indicate that this was a site of industry. To the researchers who discovered them, these carefully arranged horns and skulls looked almost like modern-day hunting trophies. Indeed, at 40,000 to 45,000 years old, Descubierta Cave may contain “possibly the strongest evidence yet for symbolic behavior in Neanderthals,” Arsuaga concludes—although, he says, alternative explanations are welcome.
I’ll be looking forward to hearing more about these discoveries.
Is this better evidence for symbolic culture than the long record of ornaments made and worn by Neandertals? How we answer that question depends on the fine details of defining “symbolic culture”.
A site described as Descubierta has been described has tremendous potential information about cultural ritual. An ornament carries similar information about repeated visual communication. These are different things, and they may inform about different cultural abilities. They certainly inform us about different cultural functions.
I don’t want to minimize the other aspects of the American Scientist article, including the great shout-out to the work of Zenobia Jacobs on dating some of these sites with luminescence methods.