Deep in a French cave, anthropologists have discovered a complex series of rings made from broken off pieces of stalactite. The structures are clearly not natural, and they date to 176,000 years ago, long before modern humans reached Europe. The structures had to be built by Neanderthals—yes, the same Neanderthals caricatured as hulking, grunting brutes with massive brow-ridges. They were hulking, but the reality of Neanderthal society indicates something far more complex.
Evidence that Neanderthals were rather complex and intelligent has been accumulating for decades. For example, Neanderthals clearly buried their dead. Just one Syrian cave contains multiple burials of young children. The position of the bodies suggests deliberate interment in prepared graves. Whether this was done as a ritual or for hygiene is unknown, but Neanderthal graves have been discovered in many different sites so the practice was clearly widespread. Plus, hearths in the vicinity indicated that Neanderthals had a sophisticated understanding of fire.
Nor is the recent discovery the first known example of Neanderthal construction. In Ukraine, large circles of mammoth bones likely constructed by Neanderthals were discovered in a cave. The purpose of those rings is also unclear. They may have served as hunting blinds, the foundations of dwellings, or they may have served some ritualistic function.
Neanderthals also engaged in complicated tasks such as mixing pigments, and may have made simple jewelry and other ornaments. The use of non-functional items such as pigments or ornaments implies that Neanderthals may have had some culture, including interests beyond mere survival. There are examples of Neanderthal culture that have later proved to be wishful thinking; flowers found on a different Neanderthal child grave probably got there by accident. No one has been able to confirm that ornaments found at Neanderthal sites were made by the Neanderthals themselves; they may have actually been made by modern humans.
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Another possibility is that since Neanderthals and modern humans mingled and interbred extensively, Neanderthals may have learned to make ornaments by mimicking modern humans rather than acquiring their own culture organically. However, the exchange might have gone both ways; Neanderthals buried their dead long before humans did.
What’s clear is that the hulking brute concept is out of date. There were good brains beneath those brow ridges.