by Staff Writers
Paris, France (SPX) May 26, 2016
Deep inside Bruniquel Cave, in the Tarn et Garonne region of southwestern France, a set of man-made structures1 336 meters from the entrance was recently dated as being approximately 176,500 years old. This discovery indicates that humans began occupying caves much earlier than previously thought: until now the oldest formally proven cave use dated back only 38,000 years (Chauvet). It also ranks the Bruniquel structures among the very first in human history.
In addition, traces of fire show that the early Neanderthals, well before Homo sapiens, knew how to use fire to circulate in enclosed spaces far from daylight. The research, reported in the 25 May 2016 issue of Nature, was conducted by an international team including Jacques Jaubert from the University of Bordeaux, Sophie Verheyden from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) and Dominique Genty of the CNRS, with logistical support from the Societe Speleo-Archeologique de Caussade under president Michel Soulier and the backing of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.
Bruniquel Cave, an extraordinary find
These circles show signs of fire use: calcite reddened or blackened by soot and fractured by heat, as well as burnt matter including bone remnants. In 1995, a first team of speleologists and researchers4 used carbon 14 to date a burnt bone at 47,600 years (the oldest possible date using that technique), but no further dating was carried out at that time.
Intriguing stalagmite structures spawn a new concept: "speleofacts"
Since no other stalagmite structure of this scale has yet been discovered, the team developed a new concept to designate these carefully arranged pieces of stalagmites: "speleofacts." An inventory of the cave's 400 speleofacts reveals a total of 112 meters of stalagmites broken into well-calibrated pieces, weighing an estimated 2.2 metric tons. The components of the structures are aligned, juxtaposed and superimposed (in two, three and even four layers), with props around the outside, apparently to hold them in place, and filler pieces. Marks left by the wrenching of stalagmites from the cave floor to make the structures have been identified nearby.
The world's first spelunkers
The Neanderthals made these structures by breaking stalagmites and rearranging the pieces. After the site was abandoned, new layers of calcite, including new stalagmite growth, formed on the man-made structures. By dating the end of the growth of the stalagmites used in the structures and the beginning of the regrowth sealing those same structures, the researchers have estimated the age of the installation at 176,500 years, +/- 2,000 years. Additional samples, in particular of the calcite covering a burnt bone, confirmed this surprising result.
Were the first Neanderthals explorers and builders?
The proof is nearly always drawings, engravings and paintings, like those found in the caves of Chauvet (-36,000 years), Lascaux (-22,000 to -20,000 years), Altamira in Spain and Niaux (-18,000 to -15,000 years for both sites) and, more rarely, burial sites (Cussac Cave in France's Dordogne region: -28,500 years). But the Bruniquel stalagmite structures were built long before modern humans arrived in Europe (-40,000 years). Their creators must therefore have been the first Neanderthals5 so far 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.
New questions about the Neanderthals
The researchers also wonder what the function of these installations, so far from daylight, could have been. Eliminating the unlikely hypothesis of shelter, given the structures' distance from the entrance, was it to find materials of now-unknown utility? Could it have been for "technical" purposes, such as water storage? Or for the observance of religious or other rites? In any case, the researchers confirm that the Neanderthals had to have an advanced social organization to build such constructions. Further studies will attempt to explain their function, which for the moment remains the biggest mystery surrounding Bruniquel Cave.
An international, multidisciplinary team
- PACEA (Prehistoire a l'Actuel: Culture, Environnement et Anthropologie, CNRS/Universite de Bordeaux/Ministry of Culture and Communication) with Jacques Jaubert, Catherine Ferrier and Frederic Santos.
The archaeological research operations were funded by the DRAC Midi Pyrenees and various other institutions. The Societe Speleo-Archeologique de Caussade, under president Michel Soulier, was in charge of site management, photographic coverage and technical and logistical support during the operations. A request has been submitted to the Ministry of Culture and Communication to list Bruniquel Cave as a historical monument, accompanied by climate monitoring and the installation of all appropriate equipment and protective measures. Further research operations are planned for 2016.
Bruniquel Cave is located on private property and is not open to the public under any circumstances.
Early Neandertal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Jacques Jaubert, Sophie Verheyden, Dominique Genty, Michel Soulier, Hai Cheng, Dominique Blamart, Christian Burlet, Hubert Camus, Serge Delaby, Damien Deldicque, R. Lawrence Edwards, Catherine Ferrier, Francois Lacrampe-Cuyaubere, Francois Leveque, Frederic Maksud, Pascal Moral, Xavier Muth, Edouard Regnier, Jean-Noel Rouzaud, Frederic Santos. Nature, 25 May 2016. DOI: 10.1038/nature18291.
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