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Neanderthals, hot toes and the unexpected origins of art10 min read

July 12, 2021 7 min read


Neanderthals, hot toes and the unexpected origins of art10 min read

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Part 2 of this story is available. Click on the next page at the bottom of this article.

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Imagine this: A big brutish Neanderthal is hobnobbing in his cave (now known as the unicorn cave). The year is 51,000 years before today. (You’re welcome to give the counting a try) The Neanderthal looks around. Things aren’t looking too great. The corner of the cave, in particular, is bland and it’s ruining the vibe of the cave.

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Voila! The Neanderthal has an idea. How about a decorative piece? Yup, perfect, and they have the necessary canvas too. The Neanderthal rushes to the other corner of the cave, where they keep their food and kills. They sift through bones and finally find it. There it is! Their rarest kill- the elusive giant deer. The Neanderthal plucks off the toe bone (gross!) and goes to heat it. An hour and a half on the fire, and the bone is just soft enough. All that’s needed now is some creativity and a sharp object. After some etching, the picture looks perfect. Finally, the corner of the Neanderthals beautiful “unicorn cave” looks perfect and beautiful. All it was missing was a bit of art!


The truth in the story

Alright, alright. You caught me. I didn’t have a camera hidden in a Neanderthal cave 51,000 years ago. But I do have the next best thing: A group of intelligent scientists who have the world’s best technology at their disposal. So, yes, some Neanderthals did make art 51,000 years ago, and yes, they probably used it to decorate the world-famous “Unicorn-cave”.

How do we know all of this?

Unscramble this image to view the clue that set things off: 

Scientists recently found this in Einhornhöhle — or, ‘Unicorn Cave’, in the Harz mountains of Germany.


Unicorn Cave – Herzberg am Harz, Germany - Atlas Obscura
The entrance to the Unicorn Cave. Image: Twitter

The Unicorn Cave has been a famous tourist attraction since the sixteenth century. People once believed that the cave contained the bones of ancient (mythical; we have no evidence of unicorns just yet) unicorns. They would grind up these bones and use the powder as medicine.

Now, Archaeologists were rummaging through the cave when they found a pile of bones. They excavated the shoulder blades of a deer, the toe bone of a deer and the skull of a bear. Surprisingly, the toe bone stood out amongst all the bones. Archaeologists quickly began to study it and found out unlocked the ancient secrets that it held.

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The bone was about 5centimetres long and 3 centimetres wide. Image: Slashgear

The secrets 

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  1. The bone belonged to an extinct species of giant deer. The species was rare even in prehistoric times. The large size of the deer probably gave the animal’s bone extra significance.
  2. The bone-in question belonged to the toe of this deer.
  3. The bones had geometric carvings on them that could indicate the early origin of art.
  4. It was probably a decorative piece for some corner of the cave. 
  5. The etchings themselves were in the shape of overlapping chevrons — lines that resembled inverted V’s — that appear to point upward.
  6. The bone belonged to a 51,000-year-old creature.

Scientists determined the age of the bone by using Radiocarbon Dating.

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Radiocarbon dating is the process of looking at particular carbon molecules known as Carbon-14 molecules. All living things absorb carbon when we live but cease to do so once we die. However, the carbon remains in our bodies long after we die and gradually decays. The amount that these molecules have decayed help scientists determine the age of the remains that they find.


What if it’s all just a coincidence?

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We’re all thinking it, so why not just say it. All we see are a few lines scribbled on a fossil. Who is to say that they mean anything? It turns out that scientists had the very same doubts. And so, they looked for answers. The lines on the rock are too symmetrical and too deep to be random. They couldn’t be accidental gashes from when the Neanderthals hunted the deer as the lines seem deliberate. Moreover, such deep cuts could only be achieved after heating and softening the bone for some time. Lastly, scientists are also sure that the artwork isn’t a piece of jewellery like a pendant.

Image: Engraved bone
The deer’s toe bone with the Neanderthal’s etchings. Image: NBC News

We know this because every time the scientists placed the bone on its base, it stood upright and balanced perfectly!

This strange etching isn’t the only piece of Neanderthal art that scientists have discovered. They also recently stumbled upon a 45,000-year-old cave painting on the walls of a prehistoric rocky human abode in Indonesia.

Wow! that was a lot. Take a break and when you return head to the next page to learn all about your ancient relatives and their artistic powers.

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