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Ancient carved bone demonstrates Neanderthals were capable of symbolic art

Researchers from the University of Göttingen have determined that the carved toe bone of a prehistoric deer is in fact one of the oldest works of art ever discovered. The small piece of art is significant not only for its age, but also because it indicates that Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, were capable of expressing symbolism through art, an ability previously thought to only belong to our own species, Homo sapiens.

The bone was discovered in the Harz Mountains of central Germany. It is carved with overlapping lines that make a chevron pattern, like a set of inverted v-shapes.

The bone was found next to the shoulder blade bones of deer and the intact skull of a cave bear, indicating that it may have had some sort of cultural or ritual significance. At 51,000 years old, it’s older than any other works of art attributed to Neanderthals.

According to archaeologist Dirk Leder, the carving is unique. “We don’t see it anywhere in the Paleolithic literature.”

The carving indicates that modern humans come from a long line of artistic creators than previously thought, and newly-discovered work by Neanderthals could shift our understanding of later works of art done by Homo sapiens. 

Thomas Terberger, a prehistoric archaeologist and co-author of the study says, “It’s clearly a decoration with a kind of symbolic character… you might even call it the initial start of art, something which was not done by accident, but with a clear plan in mind.”

Image source: NBC News

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