In 1990, a fifteen-year-old boy named Bruno Kowalsczewski found the Bruniquel Cave - and he was the first person to be inside in tens of thousands of years, according to The Atlantic.
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The cave sits in Aveyron Valley, France, but the entrance was sealed. Kowalsczewski's father figured out that there were faint wisps of air that emerged from the scree, and they spent years clearing away the rubble. He was able to dig out a thirty-meter panel that he was able to squeeze through. When through, the team found a large corridor that had animal bones that were years old. There were pools of water, stalactites, and stalagmites.
However, once a team went 336 meters into the cave, they found something very strange. A section where almost all of the stalagmites had been broken deliberately. There were more than 400 pieces arranged into two rings. Inside those rings, there were traces of fire and a massive amount of burnt bones.
This was built by people.
Archaeologist Francois Rouzaud was brought in and he estimated that the burnt bear bone was 47,600 years old, which meant that the rings were older than any cave painting ever found. Which also meant that it wasn't the work of homo sapiens - it was the work of Neanderthals.
This means that Neanderthals were far more sophisticated than anyone ever thought they could be. They used fire, went deep underground, and made complex constructions. Signs say that they even carried out rituals because the cave wasn't lived in - it was there for something else.
In April 1999, however, it all stopped when Rouzaud suffered a heart attack while in the cave.
That was until Sophie Verheyden went on holiday.
Verheyden works at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, where her speciality was stalagmites. She wondered why they hadn't dated the broken stalagmites.
Now, she thought that the date of 47,600 was impressive but no quite right. Carbon dating is only accurate for samples younger than 50,000 years old. Verheyden assembled a team with archaeologist Jacques Jaubert and fellow stalagmite expert Dominique Genty went into the site in 2013.
“I’m not very big, and I had to put one arm before me and one behind to get through,” says Verheyden. “It’s kind of magical, even without the structures.”
They did their own research and found out that each stalactite was snapped off 176,500 years ago.
“When I announced the age to Jacques, he asked me to repeat it because it was so incredible,” says Verheyden. Now, the earliest human constructions we know up until now had been 20,000 years old. In comparison, these things are ancient.
Neanderthals certainly built these formations.
So why did they build these rings and mounds? Like we said before, we know that it wasn't for huts or shelter.
“A plausible explanation is that this was a meeting place for some type of ritual social behavior,” says Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Museum.
“When you see such a structure so far into the cave, you think of something cultural or religious, but that’s not proven,” adds Verheyden.
No one really knows how they made them either. It had to have been a technically skilled team that built it.
“The Neanderthal group responsible for these constructions had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought,” the team writes.
This just adds to the further debate the Neanderthals may have used language.
“The new findings have ushered a transformation of the Neanderthal from a knuckle-dragging savage rightfully defeated in an evolutionary contest,to a distant cousin that holds clues to our identity,” wrote Lydia Pyne in Nautilus.
“I think we have several lines of evidence showing that the cognitive abilities and behaviors of Neanderthals were complex,” says Marie Soressi from Leiden University. “But we had no direct evidence of their ability to build. That changes the picture for me. It’s puzzling to find such structures so deep inside the cave.”
They want to start cutting into the cave's floor, which will help to reveal more according to Verheyden.
“We’re crawling through this small thing and there are bear hollows in the cave. I don’t think the bears went in that way!” she says. “There must have been some other passage that collapsed.”
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She’s going to find it.