This 130,000-Year-Old Decorative Bear Bone May Be the Oldest Known Neanderthal Art

Researchers say the carved artifact was not a utilitarian item and instead served a symbolic purpose

Bear bone resize 2.jpg
The bone measures roughly four inches long and has 17 markings. T. Gąsior

The stereotypical image of a Neanderthal is that of a brutish, unintelligent and uncivilized caveman. However, a new study from researchers at the University of Wrocław in Poland is attempting to demonstrate that our Homo sapien predecessor possessed cognitive abilities and was even artistic.

The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, argues that a 130,000-year-old bear bone with Neanderthal carvings may be one of the oldest known art pieces in Eurasia.

The bone, which measures four inches long and has 17 markings, was originally discovered in 1953 in the Dziadowa Skała Cave in southern Poland. Experts unearthed it from a layer dating approximately 115,000 to 130,000 years old and originally mistook the bone for a bear’s rib.

Seventy years later, the bone is getting a reexamination. It’s not a rib, but a radial bone from a juvenile bear’s left foreleg. Using 3D microscopy and X-ray computed tomography, the team was able to create a digital model of the artifact.

Close up view of the markings
The bone has 17 parallel markings that researchers believe were created with intention. T. Płonka / M. Diakowski / T. Gąsior / computer processing by N. Lenkow

They found that the 17 parallel markings on the bone were likely placed intentionally, as they repeat and follow an organized pattern. The bone, therefore, is neither a tool nor a ritual object, but a decorative and artistic piece. "It is one of the quite rare Neanderthal objects of symbolic nature," Tomasz Płonka, an author of the study and an archaeologist at the University of Wrocław, tells Live Science’s Soumya Sagar. It represents the oldest known art created by Neanderthals in Europe north of the Carpathian Mountains.

"That such series of parallel incisions really appear with the Neanderthals and not before, suggests that they were a cultural practice that had meaning and function, and not, say, the product of unconscious personal habits like modern doodling," Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at England's Durham University who was not involved in the study, tells Live Science.

Although researchers still don't know exactly what the markings mean, Pettitt adds, "the Dziadowa Skala Cave incised bone at the very least shows us that Neanderthals were using visual culture to encode information, a truly human capability."

To learn more about how the carvings were made, the team recreated the markings on cattle bones with replica tools, such as flint knives and middle Paleolithic blades. They then experimented with seven different carving techniques.

The team learned that the Neanderthal who created the symbolic markings likely did it in one sitting with what they think was a flint knife. The artist also probably moved quickly, making swift, repeated incisions.

"Most of the incisions have a very characteristic comma-like end that curves to the right. When our experimenter, who was a right-handed person, moved the flint instrument towards himself, the incisions curved to the right," Płonka tells Live Science. "Therefore, we know that the Neanderthal who made these incisions was a right-handed person."

This isn’t the only example of Neanderthals exhibiting the unique habit of carving symbolic parallel cuts into bones. In the past, researchers have also uncovered the cranium of a Neanderthal female, featuring 35 similar incisions.

The discovery of the intricately carved bear bone not only enriches researchers' understanding of the Neanderthal lifestyle, but it also suggests creative tendencies in Paleolithic people.

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