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A 51,000-year-old engraved bone reveals Neanderthals’ capacity for symbolic behaviour

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A Publisher Correction to this article was published on 20 July 2021

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Abstract

While there is substantial evidence for art and symbolic behaviour in early Homo sapiens across Africa and Eurasia, similar evidence connected to Neanderthals is sparse and often contested in scientific debates. Each new discovery is thus crucial for our understanding of Neanderthals’ cognitive capacity. Here we report on the discovery of an at least 51,000-year-old engraved giant deer phalanx found at the former cave entrance of Einhornhöhle, northern Germany. The find comes from an apparent Middle Palaeolithic context that is linked to Neanderthals. The engraved bone demonstrates that conceptual imagination, as a prerequisite to compose individual lines into a coherent design, was present in Neanderthals. Therefore, Neanderthal’s awareness of symbolic meaning is very likely. Our findings show that Neanderthals were capable of creating symbolic expressions before H. sapiens arrived in Central Europe.

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Fig. 1: Engraved giant deer phalanx (inventory number 46999448-423) from a late Middle Palaeolithic context (layer 4.5) at Einhornhöhle, Lower Saxony, Germany.
Fig. 2: Plan and section drawing of the former cave entrance area at Einhornhöhle, including the chronostratigraphic assignment of individual radiometric samples.
Fig. 3: Technological details of the incised bone from Einhornhöhle.
Fig. 4: 3D digital microscopy images of the carved bone from Einhornhöhle.
Fig. 5: Micro-traces of lines 1–6.

Data availability

A 3D video of the engraved giant deer bone is available online. It is free to view at https://denkmalpflege.niedersachsen.de/live/institution/mediadb/mand_45/psfile/bild/57/CC_BY_SA_3606c7d7aad00b.mp4 and can be downloaded in .mp4 file format under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 licence at https://denkmalpflege.niedersachsen.de/download/167053/CC-BY-SA_3.0.mp4. A 3D model of the engraved giant deer bone can be downloaded in .stl data format under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 licence at https://denkmalpflege.niedersachsen.de/download/166881/CC-BY-SA_3.0.stl. Further datasets generated during and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.

List of figures with available raw data: Fig. 2—3D coordinate data of finds (.xlxs); Fig. 3—micro-CT scan raw model data (.stl); Figs. 4 and 5—3D digital microscopy images (.jpg, .tiff and so on); Supplementary Fig. 5—3D coordinates of individual samples (A); data spreadsheet for the sample contents (for example, clay %, Dolomite cps and so on) (B, C) as .xlsx; Supplementary Fig. 7—3D coordinate data of finds (.xlxs); Supplementary Fig. 10—micro-CT scan raw model data (.stl); Supplementary Fig. 11—micro-CT scan raw model data (.stl; further photographs of experimental bone traces); Supplementary Fig. 12—3D digital microscopy images (.jpg, .tiff and so on).

Code availability

No custom computer code or custom mathematical algorithm is involved in this study. All data were generated using standard and machine in-built software as stated in the Methods sections of the manuscript and the Supplementary Information, as well as the Reporting Summary.

Change history

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Acknowledgements

We thank F. Sieker from Waygate GmbH for performing the micro-CT scans, G. Schulz and A.-L. Krogmeier (both NLD) for the conservation of the faunal remains, and M. Sietz (NLD) for identification of the wood species and cleaning of the charcoal samples. Furthermore, we acknowledge J. Vespermann (Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim), I. Verheijen (Schöningen) and À. Blanco Lapaz (Tübingen) for their support in identifying the species of the incised bone, and T. Wulf (NLD) for providing the extended data online. We are grateful to M. Niekus (University of Groningen) and S. McPherron (Max-Planck Institute, Leipzig) for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. We are indebted to the Niedersächsisches Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kultur for making this research possible through the Pro*Niedersachsen grant no. 76202-76-2/17 (D.L., T.T.).

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D.L. designed the project, analysed the finds, contributed to the experiments and discussion, and wrote major parts of the text. R.H. designed and performed the bone carving experiment, and contributed to the text. M.H. performed radiocarbon dating and contributed to the text. G.R. analysed faunal remains and contributed to the text. P.H. conducted sediment analysis and contributed to the text. R.N. contributed to project design and field work. U.B. contributed to project design and discussion. J.L. contributed to field work and discussion. M.M. analysed the engraved bone (stereo-microscopy), was responsible for its conservation and contributed to the discussion. A.S. contributed to project design and discussion. A.T.-R. analysed the engraved bone (micro-CT scan) and contributed to the discussion. T.K. analysed the engraved bone (3D digital microscopy) and contributed to the text. T.T. designed the project, contributed to discussion and wrote major parts of the text. D.L.’s position at the State Service for Cultural Heritage Lower Saxony is funded by the Niedersächsisches Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kultur, who made this research possible through the Pro*Niedersachsen grant no. 76202-76-2/17. The grant also comprises financial support, for example, for archaeological field work, radiocarbon dating and organic material studies. All relevant funding awarded to each author is described in the Acknowledgements section; if not indicated, funding was provided by the authors’ institutions.

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Correspondence to Dirk Leder or Thomas Terberger.

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Supplementary results, methods, Figs. 1–18, Tables 1–9 and references.

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Leder, D., Hermann, R., Hüls, M. et al. A 51,000-year-old engraved bone reveals Neanderthals’ capacity for symbolic behaviour. Nat Ecol Evol 5, 1273–1282 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-021-01487-z

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