Building Project in Bruniquel Cave Reveals Neanderthals’ Modern-Human Ability

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Construction of semicircular walls deep in a cave shows Neanderthals “had already mastered the underground environment . . . a major step in human modernity.”1

Discovery of man-made structures in an underground cavern has shown that Neanderthals could do a lot more than most folks have given them credit for. They appropriated a large, dark chamber, far from the French cave’s entrance, for their own use. They skillfully broke or cut available building materials to a precise size. And they executed an elaborate scheme of carefully crafted, geometric construction. Sealed since the time Middle Paleolithic Neanderthals populated Europe and Asia, Bruniquel Cave’s secrets were unveiled by spelunkers who dug through its calcite-coated, collapsed entrance in 1990, but the true nature of the calcite-covered, fire-marked semicircular walls and stalagmite stacks preserved there have only now been revealed.

Fully Human Neanderthal Behavior

In addition to demonstrating that Neanderthal intellectual abilities were equal to complex tasks, Bruniquel’s stone circles demonstrate that the Neanderthals who built the mysterious rings and mounds must have had a social organization and culture more complex than anthropologists (at least evolutionary ones) have thought possible. Thanks to evolutionary propaganda that painted Neanderthals as less evolved than modern humans, the very word Neanderthal once conjured up images of brow-ridged, grunting brutes. Anthropologists have continued to debate whether Neanderthals had the capacity for abstract, symbolic thought, although mounting evidence has long demonstrated that the Neanderthals behaved in many ways like modern humans. They made complex tools and jewelry, drew with pigments, cooked vegetables, used bitter medicinal herbs, cared for their infirm companions, and buried their dead.2

Like us, Neanderthals were predominantly right handed. Having a dominant hand is a uniquely human trait that, neurologically speaking, indicates some of their brain functions were lateralized, an essential prerequisite for language. Though they left no written account of themselves, they possessed the same form of the FOXp2 gene that makes language learning possible in modern people. And DNA evidence demonstrates that Neanderthals mixed not only with other ancient people groups but also with early modern humans, leaving their genetic footprint in people of today, particularly in the modern immune system. Yet because they left no great edifices that could survive for millennia as the pyramids of Egypt have, archaeologists have until now lacked proof of their architectural abilities and organizational skills.

This is not the first time cave discoveries have shown that Neanderthals could organize their space. (See “Neanderthals, Like Other Humans, Heated Water, and Organized Their Homes.”) But it is the first evidence demonstrating that Neanderthals could not only explore deep inside caves—336 meters (about 1,100 feet) from the current entrance, far from any natural light source—but also conquer those deep spaces by filling them with light and their own neatly planned constructions.

Constructions in the Cave

These are the first man-made, early Middle Paleolithic stalagmite constructions ever found. “The structures are spectacular and have virtually no equivalent for that period, and even for more recent periods,” explains Jacques Jaubert, lead author of the report published in Nature.3 And paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum agrees: “These must have been made by early Neanderthals, the only known human inhabitants of Europe at this time.”4 The low walls and stacks are built of over 400 pieces of stalagmite. Half of these consist of the middle section of a stalagmite with the root and tip removed. Places are visible where some of the stalagmites were wrenched up from the cave floor, but others may well have been hauled in from elsewhere. Altogether these Neanderthals produced and placed about 2.2 tons of stalagmite pieces, each about the length of a forearm.5

Altogether these Neanderthals produced and placed about 2.2 tons of stalagmite pieces, each about the length of a forearm.

Located in the largest chamber in Bruniquel Cave, the semicircular walls demarcate spaces 6.7 x 4.5 meters (about 22 by 15 feet) and 2.2 x 2.1 meters (about 7 x 7 feet) across, respectively. The walls are made of four layers of stacked uniform pieces of stalagmites, each about 34.4 cm (13.5 inches) long. The stalagmite “bricks” are carefully aligned, and some short pieces are interspersed between them for additional support. Vertical buttresses stabilize the walls. Four stacks of stalagmites ranging 0.55 to 2.60 meters (roughly 2 to 8.5 feet) in diameter, two inside the large ring, add to the mystery of just what the Neanderthals were thinking. These stacks are clearly not just piles of extra building material, as the stalagmites in them are shorter, about 29.5 cm (about 11.5 inches) in length.6

There are a lot of fire markings, red and black cracks, on all six structures. How do the archaeologists know the colors and charred cracks were made by fire and not just dripping cave minerals? Spectrometry and magnetic measurements of these spots on the walls and stacks and on a burnt piece of animal bone are consistent with exposure to fire.7

Neanderthal Construction

This page from Jaubert’s study published in Nature shows the chamber containing the calcite-covered Neanderthal constructions in photograph (a). Several horizontal layers of stalagmites are stacked in (b). The wall is buttressed by vertical pieces, as shown in (c). Photographs (d) and (e) show short pieces of stalagmite squeezed in to support others. Image from Jacques Jaubert et al., “Early Neanderthal Constructions Deep in Bruniquel Cave in Southwestern France.” Photograph (a) was provided to the study’s authors by É. Fabre of the Speleological & Archaeological Society of Caussade.

Implications of the Discovery

This was a labor-intensive project. The authors who excavated and analyzed it write:

This type of construction implies the beginnings of a social organization: this organization could consist of a project that was designed and discussed by one or several individuals, a distribution of the tasks of choosing, collecting and calibrating the speleofacts [stone artifacts], followed by their transport (or vice versa) and placement according to a predetermined plan. This work would also require adequate lighting. The construction of such a structure, involving the placement and arrangement of speleofacts, supposes a minimum degree of skill, since architectural techniques such as inserting wedging elements between two rows of speleofacts or placing stays to act as a buttresses, appear to have been used.8

Paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer admits, “This discovery provides clear evidence that Neanderthals had fully human capabilities in the planning and the construction of ‘stone’ structures, and that some of them penetrated deep into caves, where artificial lighting would have been essential.”9 Washington University paleoanthropologist Erik Trinkaus agrees: “The find is solid, and it is an important documentation of the advanced behaviors of the Neanderthals.”10 He adds, “This requires the mobilization of people who choose, who lead, who advise, manufacture—and with continuous light. All this indicates a structured society.”11

So why did the Neanderthals build these rings and stacks?

So why did the Neanderthals build these rings and stacks? After all, if a cave only serves as shelter, it is not necessary to build stone circles in its dark recesses. Did they serve some ritualistic purpose? Provide a special place to gather for a meeting? Demarcate separate spaces for leaders or certain groups of people? Serve as a sheltered lunch counter? Offer a public works project to keep people busy in the winter? No one knows. But clearly the structures were built with great effort for some purpose.

While we may never know why the Neanderthals built them, these structures—sealed in a cave and coated with calcite—have been preserved for millennia for us to see. And they should change how we view Neanderthals. They should remind us that Neanderthals were people, descendants of Adam like ourselves. Just as Bible-believing creationists have been saying all along.

Presumptions and Preservation

Why haven’t more Neanderthal buildings been found? Why is Neanderthal artwork also found inside caves? Caves, especially sealed ones, offer a unique environment protected from the elements that make many artifacts disappear. We do not know therefore whether Neanderthals elsewhere really left much more of themselves behind than has been preserved.

The study’s author Jacques Jaubert concludes that, in view of the constructs in Bruniquel Cave and other Neanderthal discoveries, scientists can now be certain that the Neanderthal humans in Eurasia and the early modern human in Africa “were both at similar stages in technical development, with regard to tools, knowledge, spirituality, equipment for hunting and fishing.”12 That in fact is exactly what we would expect in light of biblical history.

Like early modern humans found in Africa, Neanderthals were descendants of people who dispersed from the Tower of Babel. Neanderthals in Eurasia would have had to find shelter and make a life for themselves as they dealt with the challenges of the post-Flood Ice Age. Yet we’ve seen that they had time and mind to be concerned with more than mere survival. Lumps of pigments, drawing tools, and cave art have already demonstrated this. And now we see that Neanderthals could execute a plan to build permanent structures for whatever future they envisioned.

People should not presume that Neanderthals were primitive and “less evolved” than modern humans just because we don’t have a lot of their paintings and buildings to look at today. Leiden University archaeologist Marie Soressi, commenting on the discovery for Nature, explains:

Perhaps we need to further consider the idea that the fuzziness of the Neanderthal record is due to a lack of preservation. Given that we often discuss archaeological findings in a comparative framework that contrasts Neanderthals (which disappeared) with early modern humans (who were obviously successful), we may also wonder how this framework is biased by Western thought. European culture is known for having emphasized what may be “uniquely human” and may separate “us” from other animals. . . . The structures discovered by Jaubert et al. are a good example of how reconstructing ancient history may benefit from not only broad-scale comparisons of evolution over time but also detailed analysis of specific areas at specific time points.13

The problem, however, is not just with Western thinking but with the evolutionary worldview that views humans of all varieties as highly evolved animals at different points on the evolutionary timeline. The evolutionary worldview is based on the presupposition that undirected, materialistic, natural processes created life and all its diverse complexity, even though nothing in observational science demonstrates that this is possible. The extraordinarily old dates assigned to Neanderthals all greatly exceed those from biblical history. Yet there is no way to objectively calibrate the various means used to “date” ancient people like Neanderthals and the artifacts they’ve left behind. Why? Because these great ages are based on the unverifiable, worldview-based presuppositions used to interpret scientific data. Like these dating methods, molecules-to-man evolutionary claims depend on what a person believes to be a reliable source of information about a time in history that cannot now be directly observed.

There is no way to objectively calibrate the various means used to “date” ancient people like Neanderthals and the artifacts they’ve left behind.

When it comes to making sense of the unobservable, untestable past, we must interpret what we see in light of what we consider to be a reliable source of information about what happened back then, a time that no scientist was around to observe. But there is only one eyewitness to all of history, to the time of human origins. The Creator God of the Bible created exactly two human beings—Adam and Eve—on the sixth day the earth existed, about 6,000 years ago. He told us so in the Bible. He made these humans in His own image. They did not evolve from the animals, which He also created. Once we understand that the history in God’s Word is reliable, then we will not be surprised at evidence that Neanderthals were as fully human as we are, with the same sort of abilities that people have today.

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Footnotes

  1. Jacques Jaubert et al., “Early Neanderthal Constructions Deep in Bruniquel Cave in Southwestern France,” Nature (2016): 1, doi:10.1038/nature18291.
  2. That Neanderthals buried their dead and even seem to have planted flowers around the grave is confirmed by excavations elsewhere in France (See Ker Than, “Neanderthal Burials Confirmed as Ancient Ritual,” National Geographic, December 16, 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131216-la-chapelle-neanderthal-burials-graves/) and Kurdistan in northern Iraq (See Owen Edwards, “The Skeletons of Shandar Cave,” Smithsonian, March 2010, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-skeletons-of-shanidar-cave-7028477/?no-ist).
  3. Nadia Drake, “Neanderthals Built Mysterious Stone Circles,” National Geographic, May 25, 2016, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/05/neanderthals-caves-rings-building-france-archaeology/.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Measurements and descriptions herein are all reported directly from Jacques Jaubert et al., “Early Neanderthal Constructions Deep in Bruniquel Cave in Southwestern France.”
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Nadia Drake, “Neanderthals Built Mysterious Stone Circles.”
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. William Herkewitz, “Neanderthals Built Mystery Cave Rings 175,000 Years Ago,” Popular Mechanics, May 25, 2016, http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/a21023/neanderthals-built-mystery-cave-rings-175000-years-ago/.
  13. Marie Soressi, “Neanderthals Built Underground,” Nature (2016): 2, doi:10.1038/nature18440.

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