New Find Pushes Symbolic Thinking Further Back in Human History

At one time, scientists believed that only some groups of humans possessed the ability to think symbolically. Neanderthals were held to be an example of humans who could not do so. But more recently, as George Dvorsky tells us at Gizmodo, a 2019 finding at the Unicorn Cave in the Harz Mountains in central Germany challenges that belief:

Patterns deliberately etched onto a bone belonging to a giant deer are signs that Neanderthals possessed the capacity for symbolic thought.

Neanderthals decorated themselves with feathers, drew cave paintings, and created jewelry from eagle talons, so it comes as little surprise to learn that Neanderthals also engraved patterns onto bone. The discovery of this 51,000-year-old bone carving, as described in Nature Ecology & Evolution, is more evidence of sophisticated behavior among Neanderthals.

George Dvorsky, “51,000-Year-Old Bone Carving Suggests Neanderthals Were True Artists” at Gizmodo

According to Smithsonian Magazine, “The carvings include angled lines that form a pattern, clearly made intentionally rather than as a result of butchering the animal.”

At Nature, archeologist Silvio M. Bello spells out the earlier view:

In evolutionary terms, ‘anatomically modern humans’ are members of our own species, Homo sapiens, who developed a ‘modern behaviour’ manifested in the accumulation of innovative and sophisticated material cultures. By contrast, evidence for technology and symbolic behaviour in Neanderthals (who lived between about 430,000 and 40,000 years ago1) has commonly been seen as limited or less developed.

Silvio M. Bello, “Boning up on Neanderthal art” at Nature (July 5, 2021)

On the new find, he comments,

The choice of material, its preparation before carving and the skilful technique used for the engraving are all indicative of sophisticated expertise and great ability in bone working. The artefact is made from a phalanx of a giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus), a rare and very impressive herbivore at that time north of the Alps, suggesting the choice of a somehow special animal with symbolic meaning.

Silvio M. Bello, “Boning up on Neanderthal art” at Nature (July 5, 2021)

Two possibilities to consider are that the incisions are a message (“I killed this deer! This is proof!”) or a charm (“Whoever carries this bone will have good luck in the hunt”). Both, of course, are instances of abstract thinking.

According to Bello, Leder and colleagues believe that the Neanderthals did not learn this incision technique from modern humans but developed it themselves. Of course, even if they had learned the technique from later migrants into Europe, the fact that they were capable of learning a symbolic art form at all shows that they were capable of abstract thought.

As one of the researchers put it,

“It’s an idea, a planned motif that you have in your mind and translate into reality,” study co-author Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the University of Göttingen, tells National Geographic’s Andrew Curry. “It’s the start of culture, the start of abstract thinking, the birth of art.”

Livia Gershon, “s This 51,000-Year-Old Deer Bone Carving an Early Example of Neanderthal Art?” at Smithsonian Magazine

Of course, we have no way of knowing that it is the first such instance; it is only the earliest one we have. A 2012 Neanderthal art find from 42,000 years ago was considered a bombshell in its day.

The paper, in Nature Ecology and Evolution, is closed access.


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Death: Child grave from 80,000 years ago shows abstract thinking. The lovingly prepared site on the Kenyan coast held the remains of a 2–3 year-old child. Perhaps the snail shell with the excisions gave an identity to “Mtoto” — a message to another world, perhaps, about who the child was.

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