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Bruniquel Cave Constructions

Neanderthal speleothem structures
Dating to 175,000 BC

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Neanderthal speleothem structures at Bruniquel Cave from the Mousterian culture
Mysterious ring structures constructed in Bruniquel cave by Neanderthal humans using made of whole and broken stalagmites. The purpose of these structures is not known. Image by Luc-Henri Fage/SSAC. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why is Bruniquel Cave So Important?

Bruniquel Cave is a Stone Age site near Bruniquel, in southern France.

It's importance derives from its extraordinary cave art - namely, a series of speleothem constructions (or assemblages) found deep within the cave, made by Neanderthals around 175,000 BC.

The discovery has important implications for Neanderthal cognitive capabilities, and Stone Age culture, because it shows that this hominid species was capable of much more modern behaviour, than previously thought.

Note that these cave constructions are unknown even in the later H. sapiens Aurignacian culture, which began some 100,000 years later. For chronological background, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Are the Constructions Art?

As yet, archaeologists and anthropologists studying Bruniquel Cave have no firm answer to this question.

It depends in part on whether the constructions are utilitarian structures.

If the Neanderthal designers had no utilitarian function in mind but intended to create a space for (say) symbolic purposes, we might consider them to be a primitive form of paleolithic art - at least in some sense.

Not artistic in the sense of (say) a prehistoric sculpture, but in the sense of modern day installation art, where visitors are subjected to an all-round meaningful experience.

Art is really the wrong word to use for a species whose primary and continuous concern was survival.

But even if the speleothem structures turn out to be no more than a prototype kitchen cooker, they remain unique in their complexity, antiquity, and depth within the subterranean darkness, and show that Neanderthal behaviour and culture was far more modern than was previously thought.

Note: please compare the constructions at Bruniquel with those at La Garma Cave complex in Cantabria, Spain.

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Location and Discovery

Bruniquel Cave is located in karst limestone terrain near the tiny village of Bruniquel, east of Montauban, in the Occitanie region of France.

The site is privately owned but regulated by the government. The cave was discovered in 1990 after having been sealed off by a rock fall for anything up to 40,000 years.

After the death of Francois Rouzaud, the first archaeologist to describe the inside of the cave, research was halted until 2013, when Jacques Jaubert (Neanderthal scholar and professor of Paleolithic archaeology at University of Bordeaux) and others, decided to study and date the structures.

Bruniquel Cave is only a few kilometres from the Abri Montastruc, home of the famous "Swimming Reindeer", a piece of sublime prehistoric art created by Cro-Manon humans, which is now in the British Museum.

Bruniquel Cave Constructions

The cave's speleothem structures protrude from the floor of a damp chamber around 330 metres (1,000 feet) from the entrance. Some of the stalagmites were made into a large circular structure. Others were arranged to form a smaller semicircle. The rest were piled in four heaps.

In respect of the two ring-shaped structures, one measures 6.7 by 4.5 metres; the other 2.2 by 2.1 metres. Both consist of between one and four layers of stalagmites.

Some extra stalagmites were positioned vertically against the rings, as reinforcement.

The four heaps of stalagmites measure between 0.55 and 2.60 metres in diameter. Two of these stacks were located inside the large ring; the other two, outside it.

In total, some 400 stalagmite pieces (speleofacts) were used to build the above structures, weighing around 2.2 tons.

Very few of the stalagmites used are whole. At least half are pieces taken from the middle of a stalagmite.

The pieces are well correlated: those in the large ring have an average length of 34.4 cm; those in the small ring average 29.5 cm.

All six structures show obvious signs of fire, along with over 100 charred animal bones.

There is no other sign of human activity in the chamber.

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Dating

The ring structures made out of stalagmite pieces have been dated by uranium series dating to roughly 175,000 BC. This is roughly 135,000 years before the advent of Upper Paleolithic art, which is associated with modern humans.

Interpretation

Judging by the complexity of the underground structures in the Bruniquel Cave, Neanderthals were more 'modern' than anyone had given them credit for.

As team member Sophie Verheyden - team member and an expert in speleothems and karst geochemistry - made clear, it wasn't a case of a solitary Neanderthal toiling away in the dark.

Most likely, there was a crew of craftsmen who broke rocks in a deliberate, calibrated manner, and perhaps another crew who arranged them so precisely and managed the fires.

In short, the Neanderthal group who ran the cave had a level of social organization that was more complex, cooperative and efficient than previously imagined for this pre-modern species of hominids.

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But why build these structures in the first place?

The chamber contained no sign of permanent occupation. There were no stone tools, human bones, artifacts or any other signs of domesticity.

The structures weren't foundations for any sort of shelter or hut - and besides, why build a hut inside a cave?

According to the Italian archaeologist Paola Villa, one possible explanation is that the chamber was a meeting place for some type of ceremony or social ritual. If so, then rather like the stained glass and altarpieces of the Christian religion, the speleothem structures could have been created as an inspirational background. But this sounds suspiciously like a rudimentary form of art.

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Neanderthal Behaviours

Prior to the discovery of Bruniquel, H. neanderthalensis in caves rarely ventured further than the area exposed to daylight. Neanderthal habitations that demanded artificial lighting, were unknown.

See, for instance, La Micoque, a typical open-air site from the Middle Paleolithic.

As a result, anthropologists considered it unlikely that these hominids had mastered the art of subterranean living, which is much more arduous than hanging about above ground.

Furthermore, despite having a larger brain than later moderns, they had no record of artistic expression, which made scientists doubt whether they were capable of symbolic thought and ritual behaviours.

For more controversy surrounding Neanderthal artistry, see Gorham's Cave (37,000 BC).

This low opinion of Neanderthals was only reinforced by their abrupt and unexplained disappearance from the archaeological record, between 40,000 and 30,000 BC.

Thus, Bruniquel Cave has totally undermined some major assumptions about Neanderthal artistry.

To be able to hack, carve, calibrate and assemble Bruniquel's complex assemblage of 'rock art', the Neanderthals needed a reliable source of light, a skilled and organized team, as well as the ability to conceive of, design, and build the structures, which are composed of more than two tons of stalagmites.

Recently, more evidence has come to light regarding the artistic impulses of H. neanderthalensis.

The Krapina eagle jewellery (130,000 BC), the Los Aviones Shell Jewellery (113,000 BC), the Maltravieso Cave handprints (64,700 BC), the Ardales Cave stalactite painting (63,000 BC), and the abstract symbols in the Cave of La Pasiega (82,000 BC) are just a few examples of Neanderthal artistic capabilities.

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References

(1) "Early Neanderthal Constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in Southwestern France". Jaubert, Jacques; Verheyden, Sophie; Genty, Dominique; Soulier, Michel; Cheng, Hai; Blamart, Dominique; Burlet, Christian; Camus, Hubert; Delaby, Serge; Deldicque, Damien; Edwards, R. Lawrence; Ferrier, Catherine; Lacrampe-Cuyaubère, François; Lévêque, François; Maksud, Frédéric; Mora, Pascal; Muth, Xavier; Régnier, Édouard; Rouzaud, Jean-Noël; Santos, Frédéric (2 June 2016) [online 25 May 2016]. Nature. 534 (7605): 111–114.
(2) "A comment on the 'Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France' paper published in Nature." Prof Chris Stringer. Natural History Museum, London.

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