Neanderthal decorations

Museums as Therapy
10 min readJun 12, 2021

Neanderthals are one of the extinct Homo species who lived in Eurasia between 400,000 and 40,000 BP. Although the lifespan of Neanderthals is larger than 350,000 years, the evidence of their symbolic behavior is very scarce: there is one known spatial structure built by Neanderthals, three highly controversial drawings attributed to them, a few engravings, and a few alleged pieces of personal ornaments. Importantly, all those objects are likely to be decorations rather than art. Below, we discuss what is known about Neanderthal decorations.

Spatial structures

In 1990, six structures made of broken stalagmites were discovered deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwest France: img. 1.1 — the largest ring-shaped structure with smaller accumulation structures inside it, img. 1.2 — a 3D reconstruction, which excludes speleothems that have naturally grown in more recent times. These structures were initially dated to at least 47,600 BP. In 2016, Jaubert et al. reported on a new dating, ca. 176,500 BP, making these structures one of the oldest (if not THE oldest) in human history.

1.1. Spatial structures in Bruniquel Cave, France, ca. 176,000 BP (Jaubert et al. 2016)
1.2. 3D reconstruction of the structures (National Geographic)

“Our study defines two categories of structures: two annular ones, which are the most impressive, and four smaller stalagmite accumulation structures… The largest annular structure is 6.7 x 4.5 m, and the smaller one is 2.2 x 2.1 m. The accumulation structures consist of stacks of stalagmites and are from 0.55 m to 2.60 m in diameter. Two of them are located in the centre of the larger annular construction, while the other two are outside of it… The annular structures are composed of one to four superposed layers of aligned stalagmites…, some short elements were placed inside the superposed layers to support them… Other stalagmites were placed vertically against the main structure in the manner of stays, perhaps to reinforce the constructions…

What was the function of these structures at such a great distance from the cave entrance [336 m]? Why are most of the fireplaces found on the structures rather than directly on the cave floor? Based on most Upper Palaeolithic cave incursions, we could assume that they represent some kind of symbolic or ritual behaviour, but could they rather have served for an unknown domestic use or simply as a refuge? Future research will try to answer these questions.” (Jaubert et al. 2016)


“Engraved objects have been reported from at least 42 Lower and Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone Age sites from Africa, Europe and Asia.” (Majkić et al. 2018a)

“Twenty-Seven Lower and Middle Paleolithic sites from Europe and the Middle East are reported in the literature to have yielded incised stones.” (Majkić et al. 2018b)

In the previous post, we discussed the oldest known engraving made on a Pseudodon shell by Homo erectus. Here, we will talk about a few recently discovered engravings (ordered by age) supposedly made by Neanderthals. (For an overview of other known Lower and Middle Paleolithic engravings see Majkić et al. 2018a, 2018b).

2.1. Two engraved bones, 125,000–105,000 BP, found at Lingjing, China, now at the Henan Provincial Institute for Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Zhengzhou, China (Li et al. 2019)

Two engraved bone fragments were discovered at Lingjing site in northern China (img. 2.1). These marks are suggested to have been made by Denisovans, another extinct Homo species, a sister species to Neanderthals, and are dated to 125,000–105,000 BP.

“The lines on 9L0141 [img. 2.1, left] were produced by an extremely sharp point, and the prehistoric individual was particularly careful when engraving the first five lines… To increase the visibility of the subsequent lines…, the engraver marked them using multiple strokes.” (Li et al. 2019)

2.2. Engraved bone of a cave bear, 102,500–93,500 BP, 38 x 28.2 x 12 mm, found at Pešturina, Serbia, now at the University of Belgrade, Belgrad, Serbia (Majkić et al. 2018a)

Another engraving, made on a bone of a cave bear, was found in Pešturina cave in Serbia (img. 2.2). The bone fragment is quite small, 38 x 28.2 x 12 mm. The engraving is dated to 102,500–93,500 BP and is suggested to have been made by a lithic point.

“Although the state of preservation of the grooves makes it difficult to formally demonstrate an anthropogenic origin, multiple lines of evidence support the hypothesis that the grooves on the Pešturina specimen were purposely incised.” (Majkić et al. 2018a)

2.3. Rock engraving, >39,000 BP, found at Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar (Rodríguez-Vidal et al. 2014)

A different kind of engraving was discovered in Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar: this engraving was made on a rock and occupies a relatively large area of 300 cm2 (img. 2.3).

“It consists of a deeply impressed cross-hatching carved into the bedrock of the cave older than 39 cal kyr… Most of the lines composing the design were made by repeatedly and carefully passing a pointed lithic tool into the grooves, excluding the possibility of an unintentional or utilitarian origin… The Gorham’s Cave engraving represents the first case in which an engraved pattern permanently marks a space within a habitation area in a cave.” (Rodríguez-Vidal et al. 2014)

Symbolic use of marine shells

“Two sites of the Neandertal-associated Middle Paleolithic of Iberia, dated to as early as approximately 50,000 years ago, yielded perforated and pigment-stained marine shells. At Cueva de los Aviones, three umbo-perforated valves of Acanthocardia and Glycymeris were found [img. 3.1]… A perforated Pecten shell [img. 3.2], painted on its external, white side with an orange mix of goethite and hematite, was abandoned after breakage at Cueva Antón, 60 km inland.” (Zilhão et al. 2010)

3.1. Perforated Acanthocardia and Glycymeris shells from Cueva de los Aviones, Spain, ca. 50,000 BP (Zilhão et al. 2010)
3.2. Perforated Pecten shell from Cueva Antón, Spain, ca. 60,000 BP (Zilhão et al. 2010)

Recently, much earlier dates for the Aviones’ finds were proposed: “U-series dating of the flowstone capping the Cueva de los Aviones deposit shows that the symbolic finds made therein are 115,000 to 120,000 years old…” (Hoffmann et al. 2018a) However, these new dates are being questioned as we will see below.

3.3. Aspa marginata shell with striations and pigment, from Funame Cave, Italy, 47,600–45,000 BP (Peresani et al. 2013)

Peresani et al. reported

“on a fragmentary Miocene-Pliocene fossil marine shell, Aspa marginata [img. 3.3], discovered in a Discoid Mousterian layer of the Fumane Cave, northern Italy, dated to at least 47.6–45.0 Cal ky BP. The shell was collected by Neandertals at a fossil exposure probably located more than 100 kms from the site. Microscopic analysis of the shell surface identifies clusters of striations on the inner lip [img. 3.3, lower left]. A dark red substance, trapped inside micropits produced by bioeroders, is interpreted as pigment that was homogeneously smeared on the outer shell surface [img. 3.3, lower right]… Together with contextual and chronometric data, our results support the hypothesis that deliberate transport and coloring of an exotic object, and perhaps its use as pendant, was a component of Neandertal symbolic Culture…” (Peresani et al. 2013)

Symbolic use of birds

“The hypothesis that Neanderthals exploited birds for the use of their feathers or claws as personal ornaments in symbolic behaviour is revolutionary as it assigns unprecedented cognitive abilities to these hominins.” (Finlayson et al. 2012)

“Sixteen Mousterian and Châtelperronian sites from Italy, Gibraltar, France, and Croatia have yielded terminal phalanges of seven bird species with cut-marks indicating that Neanderthals deliberately removed the claws. At seven Mousterian sites from Italy, France, Germany, and Gibraltar cut-marks and scraping marks on upper limb bones indicate that feathers were purposely detached from the wings. Removal of feathers and claws is interpreted as proof that these objects were used as personal ornaments by Neanderthals.” (Majkić et al. 2017, contains an overview of the subject)

4.1. White-tailed eagle talons from Krapina, Croatia, ca. 130,000 BP (Radovčic et al. 2015)

The earliest known example of symbolic use of birds by Neanderthals is

“eight, mostly complete white-tailed eagle (Haliaëtus [Haliaeetus] albicilla) talons from the Krapina Neandertal site in present-day Croatia, dating to approximately 130 kyrs ago [img. 4.1]. Four talons bear multiple, edge-smoothed cut marks; eight show polishing facets and/or abrasion. Three of the largest talons have small notches at roughly the same place along the plantar surface, interrupting the proximal margin of the talon blade. These features suggest they were part of a jewelry assemblage, — the manipulations a consequence of mounting the talons in a necklace or bracelet.” (Radovčic et al. 2015)

4.2. Traces of intentional removal of feathers at Fumane Cave, Italy, ca. 44,000 BP (Peresani et al. 2011)

Peresani et al. were the first to report an intentional removal of feathers performed by Neanderthals at Fumane Cave in Italy around 44,000 BP (img. 4.2).

“Cut, peeling, and scrape marks, as well as diagnostic fractures and a breakthrough, are observed exclusively on wings… There is no doubt that the human modifications (striae, peeling, and breakthrough) indicate an unusual significance, as they are present on rare species with no particular food utility. These are mainly birds living in open areas close to rock cliffs and caves (lammergeier, Eurasian black vulture, and Alpine chough) as well as in clearings on the edges of woods and forests (red-footed falcon and common wood pigeon).” (Peresani et al. 2011)

4.3. Notches on a raven bone from Zaskalnaya, Crimea, ca. 43,000–38,000 BP (Majkić et al. 2017)

Another interesting artefacts related to the symbolic use of birds by Neanderthals was recently reported by Majkić et al. (img. 4.3).

“We analyze a radius bone fragment of a raven (Corvus corax) from Zaskalnaya VI rock shelter, Crimea. The object bears seven notches and comes from an archaeological level attributed to a Micoquian industry dated to between 38 and 43 cal kyr BP… Microscopic analysis of the notches indicate that they were produced by the to-and-from movement of a lithic cutting edge and that two notches were added to fill in the gap left between previously cut notches, probably to increase the visual consistency of the pattern.” (Majkić et al. 2017)

Disputed drawings

Above, we discussed Neanderthal decorations, which (with an exception of one spatial structure in Bruniquel Cave) are simply a bunch of scratches, striations and traces of pigment on bones, stones, rocks, and shells. The same is the case for the earliest decorations made by modern humans, aka Homo sapiens (see corresponding text). Such objects are constantly present in decent numbers at archeological sites in Europe (Neanderthals), Africa (modern humans), and Asia (different Homo species). Thus, it is generally accepted that the symbolic behavior of early hominids was limited to such simple artefacts, till figurative art appears around 42,000 BP in Europe and Asia.

5.1. Red linear motif in La Pasiega, Cantabria, Spain (Hoffmann et al. 2018b)

In 2018, Hoffmann et al. reported a new minimum age, at least 64,800 BP, for three drawings in Spanish caves: “a red linear motif in La Pasiega (Cantabria) [img. 5.1], a hand stencil in Maltravieso (Extremadura) [img. 5.2], and red-painted speleothems in Ardales (Andalucía) [img. 5.3]” (Hoffmann et al. 2018b). This new dating of some figurative cave paintings is in stark contrast to the above evidence that the symbolic behavior of early hominids was not advanced enough to produce art till 42,000 BP.

5.2. Hand stencil in Maltravieso, Extremadura, Spain (Hoffmann et al. 2018b)

Of course, such discrepancy sparked a heated discussion between Hoffmann et al. and their numerous opponents.

“This proposition is alarming to many archaeologists, due to the multiple sources of error inherent in this dating method… The results presented by Hoffmann et al. (2018) are especially troubling since they contradict more than one hundred years of research observations on the Neanderthal and modern human archaeological record.” (White et al. 2020)

5.3. Red-painted speleothems in Ardales, Andalucía, Spain (Hoffmann et al. 2018b)

To date, the above discussion has not reached a definite end. Any hypothesis is possible between two extremes: (1) the new dates are incorrect, or (2) these dates are correct, while the dates of many other cave paintings have to be revised. Whichever is true, for now we treat these disputed Neanderthal drawings as outliers. And with this, we conclude the discussion of Neanderthal decorations.




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