Neanderthal artists?


Carved bone discovery from Germany stirs Neanderthal creativity debate.


Were the Neanderthals artists? The debate has continued for years with no definitive resolution of the controversy in sight. Many experts believe that they started creating symbolic objects after encountering incoming modern humans. A new discovery from Einhornhöhle, 'Unicorn Cave', in the mountains of Central Germany, adds to the debate.


The cave has long been a subject of interest, ever since treasure hunters looked for unicorn fossils there as long ago as the Middle Ages, whence the cave’s name. In more recent years, a scatter Neanderthal artifacts and animal bones have come from the cave. They include a deer bone decorated with a chevron pattern cut into its surface (pictured).


The cross-hatch or zigzag marks were made intentionally and do not seem to be a by-product of processing a carcass for food. A radiocarbon date for the bone came out gave a reading of at least 51,000 years ago, which means that the find predates the first settlement of Europe by modern humans.


The Einhornhöhle bone is said to be one of the most complex creative expressions by Neanderthals yet discovered. But is it indicative of high artistic creativity? Someone may have cut a few chevrons into a bone entirely by chance. This is not the same as saying that Neanderthals developed an entire symbolic tradition, for there are no signs of much a tradition at numerous sites, nor are there any indications that the tradition passed down the generations. Many more finds will be needed before extravagant claims of Neanderthal artistic traditions are widely accepted – but the carved bone makes for a good headline.