Abstract

Very little is known about Neanderthal cultures1, particularly early ones. Other than lithic implements and exceptional bone tools2, very few artefacts have been preserved. While those that do remain include red and black pigments3 and burial sites4, these indications of modernity are extremely sparse and few have been precisely dated, thus greatly limiting our knowledge of these predecessors of modern humans5. Here we report the dating of annular constructions made of broken stalagmites found deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwest France. The regular geometry of the stalagmite circles, the arrangement of broken stalagmites and several traces of fire demonstrate the anthropogenic origin of these constructions. Uranium-series dating of stalagmite regrowths on the structures and on burnt bone, combined with the dating of stalagmite tips in the structures, give a reliable and replicated age of 176.5 thousand years (±2.1 thousand years), making these edifices among the oldest known well-dated constructions made by humans. Their presence at 336 metres from the entrance of the cave indicates that humans from this period had already mastered the underground environment, which can be considered a major step in human modernity.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the owners of the cave (Nidauzel association), the French Ministry of Culture & Communication, MCC (DRAC-SRA Midi-Pyrénées, Toulouse), M. Vaginay, P. Chalard, É. Mauduit, the Speleological & Archaeological Society of Caussade (SSAC), CNRS (InEE & InSU), the University of Bordeaux-PACEA, LSCE Gif-s/-Yvette, M. O’Farrell and C. Garrec for editing, V. Feruglio for a drawing. We thank F. Dewilde and F. Mansouri (LSCE) for their assistance with the isotopic measurements, Y. Vanbrabant (Belgian Geological Survey) for his assistance with the cave monitoring and B. Martinez for his help with the topography. We thank S. Mariot and R. Weil (LPS, Paris-XI University, Orsay) for their help in the infrared spectrometry measurements. This work is mainly supported by French MCC (DRAC-SRA Midi-Pyrénées, Toulouse) and in part by the Belgian Science Policy Office. The U-Th dating was supported in part by the U.S. NSF.

Author information

Author notes

    • Jacques Jaubert
    • , Sophie Verheyden
    •  & Dominique Genty

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. PACEA, UMR 5199 CNRS-UB-MCC University of Bordeaux, 33615 Pessac, France

    • Jacques Jaubert
    • , Catherine Ferrier
    •  & Frédéric Santos
  2. Earth & History of Life, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, 1000 Brussels, Belgium

    • Sophie Verheyden
    •  & Christian Burlet
  3. AMGC, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 1050 Brussels, Belgium

    • Sophie Verheyden
  4. LSCE, UMR 8212 CNRS-CEA-UVSQ, 91400 Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Dominique Genty
    • , Dominique Blamart
    •  & Édouard Régnier
  5. Société spéléologique et archéologique de Caussade, 5 rue Bourdelle 82300 Caussade, France

    • Michel Soulier
  6. Institute of Global Environmental Change, Xi’an Jiaotong University, Xi’an 710049, China

    • Hai Cheng
  7. Earth Sciences, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455, USA

    • Hai Cheng
    •  & R. Lawrence Edwards
  8. Protée Expert Sas, 30250 Sommières, France

    • Hubert Camus
  9. Faculté Polytechnique, University of Mons, 7000-Mons, Belgium

    • Serge Delaby
  10. Laboratoire de Géologie de l'École Normale Supérieure de Paris (ENS), UMR CNRS 8538, 75000 Paris, France

    • Damien Deldicque
    •  & Jean-Noël Rouzaud
  11. Archéosphère, 11500 Quirbajou, France

    • François Lacrampe-Cuyaubère
  12. Get in Situ, 1091 Bourg-en-Lavaux, Switzerland

    • François Lacrampe-Cuyaubère
    •  & Xavier Muth
  13. LIENSs, UMR 7266 CNRS-University of La Rochelle, 17000 La Rochelle, France

    • François Lévêque
  14. Ministry of Culture, Regional Archaeological Service of Midi-Pyrénées, 31080 Toulouse, France

    • Frédéric Maksud
  15. Archéostransfert, Archéovision, UMS 3657 SHS-3D, 33007 Pessac, France

    • Pascal Mora

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Contributions

J.J., S.V. and D.G. coordinated this study; they wrote the article and conducted the field sampling. M.S. participated in the cave discovery and is in charge of the logistical support and cave access. H.Ch. made the U-Th measurements and R.L.E. oversaw and helped to interpret the U/Th dates. D.B. conducted the δ18O and δ13C measurements. C.B. is responsible for the temperature monitoring. H.C., S.D. and X.M. realised the geographical and new topography studies of the cave. F.L.-C. realised the drawings. F.L. realised the magnetism measurements and their interpretation, D.D., D.G. and J.-N.R, the SEM-EDS, FTIR measurements and Raman spectrometry. F.M. participated in the field trips and archaeological survey. P.M. realised the photogrammetric work. C.F. realised the study of fireplaces and heated areas. É.R. participated in the field trips and the coring. F.S. is responsible for the statistical studies of the structure elements.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jacques Jaubert or Sophie Verheyden or Dominique Genty.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1–2 and Supplementary Data.

Videos

  1. 1.

    3D-model of the structures in Bruniquel Cave

    The 3D-model clearly showing the different types of structures: two annular ones (with superposed layers of stalagmites), which are the most impressive constructions, and four smaller stalagmite accumulation structures (especially two in the centre of the main structure A).

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature18291

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