Strange rings crafted from stalagmites, 176,000 years old, were found extremely deep within a cave in France. Scientists reported the findings in Nature recently. They are the work of Neanderthals, our ancient human relatives.
Once again, Neanderthals are proving to be much more “human” than anticipated by the Common Wisdom we were afflicted with previously. Over the years, we were told, in absence of all evidence, how inferior Neanderthals were: they were ape-men, hunched over, with bowed legs, disgraced by sloped, barely existing foreheads, Neanderthals could not conduct abstract thought, the nerves going to their tongues were too thin for speech, their larynx was such they could not make human sounds, they were inbred, wrecked with defective genes (that’s the latest from the racist brigade!), etc.
What was the objective evidence? Neanderthals had invented many technologies, including that of burning fossil fuels (lignite coal, 80,000 years ago, in France). Neanderthals also extinguished Cave Bears, and apparently domesticated dogs. Thus much of the culture we inherited, and makes us all the so human, is… Neanderthal. We The Neanderthals.
It also seemed that Neanderthal brains were more than 15% larger.
How come Common Wisdom is revealed, time and time again to be erring on the side of finding everybody else inhuman? That’s the tribal instinct at its best: exclude the others by making them shameful, inferior, pitiful, imperfectly human, etc.. .
“Until now, Neanderthals were presumed by the scientific community not to have ventured far underground, nor to have mastered such sophisticated use of lighting and fire, let alone to have built such elaborate constructions,” wrote the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
“This discovery provides clear evidence that Neanderthals had fully human capabilities in the planning and the construction of ‘stone’ structures, and that some of them penetrated deep into caves, where artificial lighting would have been essential,” says paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London.
Some of our contemporaries have been all over the Media, stupidly asking why Neanderthals invented artificial lighting, or why they ventured. Well, for the exact same reason as we send probes beyond the Solar System: because we want to know all there is to know, and just because we can.
The human brain is build, just because it can fetch discoveries, anywhere possible.
Such caves have been routinely sealed by collapses. Since the Pleistocene, Bruniquel Cave, located in southwest France, a limestone region rife with decorated Paleolithic caves. In 1990, spelunkers excavated its entrance, squeezed through, and found remnants of long-vanished cave bears and other extinct megafauna just inside.
The cave’s most striking treasure laid in a damp chamber more than 330 meters from the entrance. There, deep in the dark, several large, layered ring-like structures protruded from the cave floor, the craftwork of human builders.
“All visitors have noticed the presence of these structures, from the first speleologists,” says Jacques Jaubert of the University of Bordeaux, a coauthor of the study referenced above.
It took decades for scientists to begin deciphering the enigmatic circles, an endeavor slowed by restricted access to the cave and the untimely death of the archaeologist who began work on the site in the 1990s. In 2013, Jaubert and his team were finally able to bring Bruniquel’s secrets into the daylight.
“The cave was very well preserved, with very few visits, almost none. The structures are spectacular and have virtually no equivalent for that period, and even for more recent periods.” Thus humanity in its full humanity is no recent feat. The access of all paleontological sites is severely regulated by the French government, complete with armored doors, encryption protected.
The structures are built from 400 stalagmites, rock formation built from dripping, dissolved limestone. They weigh nearly three tons, and have a total a length of 112 meters.
Radioactive datation came as a big surprise: 176,000 years old. And there is no doubt, considering the rock cloak deposited over time. Imagine the technology needed to penetrate a cave more than 1,100 feet, armed only with (presumably) oil lamps!
Anti-Neanderthals racists in the US pontificated that the circles were made by Cave Bears… something rather unlikely, considering the total absence of photons, that far inside! Besides, Cave Bears are not known for making fire, and burning bones. Soot marks and heat fractures had been analyzed earlier through Carbon 14 datation to 50,000 years old, the maximum limit of the C14 method. Evidence is that the circles held fire pits.
Full Neanderthals had semicircular canals and a distinctive inner ear shape compared to modern humans. The differences are comparable, say some specialists, to those separating ape species. However, we clearly inherited from Neanderthals more than just a few genes.
Homo Erectus (“Homo Ergaster”) colonized Eurasia at least all the way to the Caucasus, and probably much further, as early as 2 million years ago. That required the technology of clothing (the famous animal skins of ancient graphic novels). A million and a half years after that, archaic Homo Sapiens, evolving in cold Europe, gave rise to human species who, in turn, evolved into Neanderthals.
One unsaid argument for believing in the superiority of Homo Sapiens Sapiens, relative to any other species comes from the fact that Homo Sapiens Sapiens survived, and Neanderthals did not. That’s entirely correct for the Hobbit species of humans. However, it’s silly for Neanderthals: all pointers point out that Neanderthals were rather superior. An obvious mechanism exists to explain the disappearance of their features, from a sheer difference of mass, and useless genetic baggage during recoveries after near-extinctions. Expanding technology (from Neanderthals and Sapiens Sapiens discoveries) would have made Neanderthal cold adaptations moot. The mysterious stalagmites circles were made during a cold episode, by the way.
Staying alive in Europe required a lot of technology for the genus Homo. Archeologists François Rouzaud discovered the Bruniquel cave. He and Philippe Morel, were pioneers of the Chauvet cave. They both died rather young, while leading archeological expeditions underground in Aveyron and the Berner Oberland (Rouzaud died at 51, and that delayed the exploration of Bruniquel).
When we want to settle Mars, of fight aging, the ultimate disease, we partake of the same spirit: going where the gods themselves have not ventured before. Inheriting variant of genes is less important, among us humans, than inheriting the right ideas, and the moods which survive best. Many of these came from our beloved ancestors, the Neanderthals. We are Neanderthals, or Denisovans, only a little in genes, but a lot in spirit, as they went where no high tech primate could have ever gone. Ideas are more precious than alleles.