Fire starters, builders: meet the neanderthals

Mysterious find: Most of the 400 broken stalagmites had been arranged into two rings. © PA

A cave in the south of France has revealed secrets from a neanderthal society. Our close relations could do things we thought only humans were capable of. Is our species really unique?

Until the early 1990s, most residents of France’s Aveyron valley were unaware of the Bruniquel cave. It needed a teenage boy to spend three years clearing rubble to open it.

When the members of the local caving club who were thin enough explored it, they came to a large chamber. They found several stalagmites — mineral deposits — which had been deliberately broken and arranged into rings and mounds.

At the time, an archaeologist estimated they were 47,600 years old — older than any known cave painting. But now, a team of experts has revealed their true age: around 176,500 years.

The team’s leader Sophie Verheyden said that when she told her colleague this, ‘he asked me to repeat it because it was so incredible.’ The arrangements are tens of thousands of years older than any known structure built by humans, and were built by neanderthals.

Neanderthals are often referred to as ‘cave men’: they are modern humans’ closest extinct relatives, and often took shelter from ice age weather in caves. Their name commonly conjures up images of primitive, unintelligent brutes. But in recent years, their reputation has been revised.

Scientists have refuted the notion that they died out because they lacked intelligence. We now know they used fire, made tools, created art and buried their dead. And the Bruniquel cave find suggests they were builders who worked cooperatively and perhaps even observed social rituals.

Humans have long thought their cognitive powers make them unique. For centuries, Judaism and Christianity have taught that God made man — exclusively — in his own image. Psychologist Dr Helene Guldberg says: ‘the difference between humans and other animals is fundamental, rather than one of degree.’

Those views have been challenged. Darwin’s discovery of evolution made clear that man was related to other animals. And some evidence suggests that dogs have picked up human traits and rats cooperate in sophisticated ways.

Now it seems our closest cousins were more intelligent than we realised. So is our species special?

Only human after all

Yes, say anthropocentrists. Other creatures live to survive and breed whereas we are moral, emotional beings, capable of calculated acts of good and evil. Our superior social skills have enabled us to communicate in sophisticated ways. And our natural urges to cooperate and learn from each other become clear from a young age.

All these things are true of other species too, reply opponents. Chimps use tools, laugh and adopt facial expressions, like we do; they understand fairness, empathy and altruism and have the ability to create hierarchies. The more we investigate, the more we find similarities between animals and humans.

You Decide

  1. Do you consider yourself an animal or a human?
  2. Are humans unique?

Activities

  1. What could researchers of the future learn about the human race from your classroom? As a class, stand to the side of the room — leaving it exactly as it is. Then look around without touching anything, as the team in the neanderthals’ cave would have done.
  2. Create a poster explaining five reasons why anthropocentrism could be right and five reasons why it could be wrong.

Some People Say...

“After humans, there will be another, more intelligent creature.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This cave is so old. How does it make any difference today?
If our cousins were able to do a lot more than we realised, we may not be as unique as we think. Some of our skills and instincts may also have much deeper roots than we realised: so, for example, you may be more innately driven to cooperate or use tools.
But when have discoveries like this changed anything important?
Discoveries which help us to understand how humans, or species similar to humans, used to behave can have a major impact. For example, studying a time when our ancestors’ existence was simply a struggle to survive can help us understand people’s most basic needs, or how they react when their survival is threatened. Our world today and the neanderthals’ cave may look very different but our instincts could be similar.

Word Watch

Boy
Bruno Kowalsczewski was 15 when he finished clearing the entrance.
Stalagmites
These grow upwards when water drips onto cave floors. Stalactites, by contrast, grow downwards when water drips through cave ceilings.
Older
The earliest known human constructions outside the cave are just 20,000 years old.
Neanderthals
They were the only members of the human family in the area at that time. Their ancestry began in Africa, like ours, but neanderthals migrated to Europe and Asia long before humans. They looked like us but were shorter and stockier with angled cheekbones, prominent brows and wide noses.
Ice age
Neanderthals lived in Eurasia from 200,000 to 30,000 years ago, in the Pleistocene epoch. There were several ice ages in the period from 2.6m years ago to 11,500 years ago.
Fire
In the cave were traces of fires, including burnt bones; and more than 120 rock fragments have red and black streaks on them which are evidence that heat was deliberately applied.
Guldberg
Author of the book Just Another Ape.
Anthropocentrists
People who believe humans are the most important life form.