Neanderthal Stone Engraving Hints They Were Capable of Cultural Expression

Scientists say a "skilled craftsman" was behind these markings.

Materialism may not be in vogue as a virtue, but it’s the items that are left behind when a person’s gone that helps tell the story of their culture. Future archeologists may dig up iPhones and keep digital libraries of past iterations of Dat Boi, and that’s on us. In turn, in an attempt to determine whether or not Neanderthals were even cultural, present-day researchers have to turn a careful eye to items they left behind. If something was designed with a purpose, then its indicative of some much larger: sophisticated thought.

In a study published Wednesday in PLOS One a team of international scientists announced that an engraved flint flake is a sign of Neanderthal culture and cognition. Found in a large Crimean cave site first discovered in 1924, this item was found in the same layer of dirt where the bones of a Neanderthal child were also unearthed. This cave was the first European site where Neanderthals were found, but the decades-long question surrounding the stone artifact discovered there has been whether the markings on it were purposeful engravings or accidental scratches.

Now, researchers are confident that the steeply horizontal lines on the flint flake were made by a “skilled craftsman” Neanderthal sometime around 35,000 years ago.

“The lines are nearly perfectly framed into the cortex, testifying of well controlled motions,” the study authors write. “This is especially the case considering the small size of the object, which makes this a difficult task. The production of the engraving required excellent neuromotor and volitional control, which implies focused attention.”

The engraved flint flake from Kiik-Koba layer IV.

Ana Majkić

To begin to understand if the markings were deliberate engravings or the aftermath of the flint flake being used as a butcher board, the scientists used microscopic analysis and a 3D reconstruction of the grooves to get a closer look. They also established an interpretive framework of what structures and patterns classify as purposeful actions and applied this methodology to the flint flake. To make the incisions, they determined, would have required fine motor skills and attention to detail — indicative that these were made with symbolic or communicative intent. They write that “the small size of the engravings are consistent with the possibility that the sign [the engravings] was intended to convey information only to a small number of individuals.”

This determination adds to the growing bulk of evidence that Neanderthals were anything but Homo stupidus — the name first given to the hominins by 19th-century biologist Ernst Haeckel. Previous findings demonstrate that they engaged in intentional burials, cared for their sick, and ornamented their tools with feathers and bird bones — signs that indicate these were feeling and thinking people. The motherload of discoveries was announced in February when scientists presented evidence that Neanderthals created elaborate cave art.

Hand-stencil art created by Neanderthals, dated to at least 66,000 years ago.

H. Collado

“I think we all hope that this will help improve the general perception people have of Neanderthals, so people don’t see them as behaviorally inferior or less cultured compared to us,” archeologist Chris Standish, Ph.D., who co-wrote the art study, told Inverse at the time. “We are more similar than previously thought.”

This analysis of the engravings adds to that sentiment. It’s established that symbolic thought is tied to the evolution of human cognition and that culture determines an individual’s behavior and neurophysiological status of the brain. There’s still debate to how advanced Neanderthals were — just last week researchers argued in Scientific Reports that Neanderthals were less cognitively and socially advanced than Homo sapiens because their cerebellums were smaller — but evidence of an ancient culture remains.

In the study, the researchers write that 27 Paleolithic sites from Europe and the Middle East have yielded incised stones. It remains to be seen what secret information might be lay within their engravings as well.