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The marks made on the carved bone by the Neanderthal are clear to the naked eye (Journal of Archaeological Science)

SCIENCE & TECH: Carved Bone in Poland shows us how Neanderthals were Thinking

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Nobody thought much of the bone fragment when it was discovered in the Dziadowa Skała Cave in southern Poland in the 1950s. It would take the better part of a century, and a brilliant new study, for the secrets of the artifact to be fully revealed.

The find, a fragment of the radius bone of a bear with 17 incisions, is proving to be a vital early indicator of Neanderthals’ cognitive abilities in the area. Dated to the Eemian period between 130,000 and 115,000 years ago, it offers stunning insight into how our lost relatives were thinking.

How Smart Were They?

A team of researchers has now re-analyzed the fragment using advanced microscopy and X-ray computed tomography techniques, publishing their finds in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences. The findings confirm the bone is one of Europe’s oldest symbolic cultural artifacts. Further, it has been shown that the bone had been intentionally marked with a retouched stone tool: the Neanderthals carved this, and with a very specific purpose.

The marks made on the carved bone by the Neanderthal are clear to the naked eye (Journal of Archaeological Science)

“This makes it one of the earliest traces of symbolic culture recorded in Eurasia, which is represented by a series of seventeen incisions made with a broad-edged flint tool, possibly a bifacial knife. Current analyses show that the marks were made in a single session by a right-handed individual through repeated incisions, mostly using a technique where the movement was towards themselves. Apparently, the incisions served no practical purpose,” write the authors of the study.

The incisions had been made during a singular event by a right-handed individual employing repetitive, unidirectional motions of the tool’s cutting edge. These incisions, distinctively purposeful in nature, were not incidental to practical tasks but rather deliberate actions.

The bear radius from Dziadowa Skała in southern Poland’s Upland of Częstochowa serves as compelling evidence for the early development of symbolic culture among hominids in both Africa and Eurasia. Furthermore, it stands as the earliest known instance of deliberately marked bone north of the Carpathian Mountains, shedding light on the cognitive capacities and cultural practices of ancient inhabitants in this region.

Excavated between 1952 and 1954 by Waldemar Chmielewski, the Dziadowa Skała site resides within a natural karst cavity amidst the Jurassic limestone formations of a wooded hill near Łężec in Skarżyce, a district of Zawiercie. The bone, initially mistaken for a cave bear rib upon its recovery in 1953, has turned out to be so much more than a cast off remnant, reports LBV Magazine.

Some of the carved parts of the bone show evidence of repeated incising by the Neanderthal (Journal of Archaeological Science)

Some of the carved parts of the bone show evidence of repeated incising by the Neanderthal (Journal of Archaeological Science)

Analysis of the incisions’ morphology reveals they were not crafted with the apex of a flake-like or burin-like tool. Rather, their distinct features indicate an intentional, systematic process distinct from dismemberment, cutting, or post-depositional factors.

These findings bolster the case for symbolic culture’s emergence across various Paleolithic epochs and regions. A surge in symbolic artifacts among Neanderthal communities, particularly evident in the Châtelperronian period, may coincide with Homo sapiens’ European expansion.

Put simply, this bone was carved in this way to deliberately create this pattern of incisions. It was not an immediately practical modification: a Neanderthal chose to decorate it.

Neanderthals in Northern Europe: Survival of the Fittest

Evidence of Neanderthal presence in Northern Europe dates back to around 250,000 to 300,000 years ago. Here, they adapted to the challenging environmental conditions of the last Ice Age, developing sophisticated survival strategies, including seeking refuge in natural shelters such as caves or constructing simple shelters using available materials. Additionally, they utilized fire for warmth, cooking, and protection.

Neanderthals were adept toolmakers, crafting stone tools for various purposes, including hunting, butchery, and woodworking. They also used bone and antler to fashion tools, such as spear points, scrapers, and awls.

As for bone incisions by Neanderthals in Northern Europe, archaeological evidence suggests that they engaged in various activities involving bone, including butchery, tool manufacturing, and potentially symbolic or ritualistic practices. Specific instances of bone incisions in this region may vary depending on the site and the archaeological context.

For example, in sites like Goyet Cave in Belgium and Denisova Cave in Russia, researchers have uncovered Neanderthal-modified bones, including incisions and marks suggestive of butchery or tool use. These findings provide insights into Neanderthals’ behavioral complexity and their interactions with their environment.

But this find in Poland is so much more. These marks, not apparently made for practical reasons, allow us to reach out across a hundred millennia and watch this toolmaker, quietly carving on a bone.

Top image: The Carved area of the Bone was completed deliberately by a Neanderthal, not as a byproduct of butchery or other practical applications. Source: Journal of Archaeological Science.

By Sahir Pandey





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