Is This 51,000-Year-Old Deer Bone Carving an Early Example of Neanderthal Art?

Made at least a millennium before modern humans’ arrival in what is now Germany, the engraved object may reflect abstract thinking

deer bone carving
The bone carving shows a deliberate pattern. V. Minkus, © NLD

A tiny deer bone found in a German cave offers the latest evidence that Homo sapiens are not the only ones capable of making art.

As Becky Ferreira reports for Vice, scientists used radiocarbon dating and other tests to determine that someone carved the bone 51,000 years ago—at least a millennium before modern humans arrived in the area. That means the marks were probably the work of Neanderthals.

Researchers found the bone in 2019 at a site in central Germany known as Unicorn Cave. Some initially assumed it was the work of an Ice Age Homo sapien, but as the new findings—published in the journal Nature, Ecology & Evolution—suggest, its origins are more likely Neanderthal.

The carvings include angled lines that form a pattern, clearly made intentionally rather than as a result of butchering the animal.

“It’s an idea, a planned motif that you have in your mind and translate into reality,” study co-author Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the University of Göttingen, tells National Geographic’s Andrew Curry. “It’s the start of culture, the start of abstract thinking, the birth of art.”

Is This 51,000-Year-Old Deer Bone Carving an Early Example of Neanderthal Art?
Researchers found the object in central Germany's Unicorn Cave. Matthias Süßen via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

CNN’s Katie Hunt reports that the choice of bone may have been symbolic as well. It came from the toe of a giant deer, a huge animal that would have been very rare in the area at the time.

“It is probably no coincidence that the Neanderthal chose the bone of an impressive animal with huge antlers for his or her carving,” says co-author Antje Schwalb, a geologist at the Technical University of Braunschweig, in a statement.

To determine how the carving was made, the researchers created their own versions, both with fresh bones and bones that had been dried or boiled. They concluded that the prehistoric deer bone was boiled before being cut and scraped to create the pattern—a seemingly deliberate process.

As Franz Lidz wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2019, scientists now know that Neanderthals made tools, cooked with fire, lived in social groups and participated in many other activities once believed to be unique to humans. Evidence that they made jewelry and even cave paintings exists, though some scholars contest these claims.

Per National Geographic, some researchers posit that members of the species were uninterested in, or incapable of, symbolic thinking or creativity. And not everyone is convinced that the new evidence contradicts that conclusion. John Shea, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York who was not involved in the research, says the bone could have been a sinker for a fishing line, a spool for thread or some other tool.

“That one cannot identify the function doesn’t mean the object is a symbol,” Shea tells National Geographic. “… When humans use symbols, they show up all over the place. Neanderthals are doing something different, if they are using symbols at all.”

Is This 51,000-Year-Old Deer Bone Carving an Early Example of Neanderthal Art?
Recent research suggests Neanderthals engaged in complex behaviors previously assumed to be unique to humans. Unicorncave via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Another question raised by the study is whether modern humans influenced the possible Neanderthal artists. In a commentary piece accompanying the article, Silvia M. Bello, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, points to evidence of genetic mixing between the species more than 50,000 years ago.

“Given this early exchange of genes, we cannot exclude a similarly early exchange of knowledge between modern human and Neanderthal populations, which may have influenced the production of the engraved artifact,” she writes.

Still, Bello points out, if this were the case, it wouldn’t take away from the skill shown by the Neanderthals.

“On the contrary, the capacity to learn, integrate innovation into one’s own culture and adapt to new technologies and abstract concepts should be recognized as an element of behavioral complexity,” she adds.

Neanderthals do appear to have created objects that might be called art much less frequently than early humans did. But co-author Dirk Leder, an archaeologist at the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage, tells National Geographic that the location of Unicorn Cave, in a cold and unpredictable climate, could have encouraged innovation.

“Neanderthals here are at their northern limits, and also dealing with shifting environmental conditions,” he says. “That might have forced them to become more dynamic and creative.”