Did Neanderthals Build Stone Circles?

SCIENCE

Rings of stalagmites found in a cave in France suggest that our ancient relatives were surprisingly skilled builders. (Nat Geo News)

Use our resources to better understand exploration of mysterious caves.

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This 3D model of the Bruniquel cave clearly shows the different types of structures present there: annular, or ring-shaped, and accumulation, or stacked. The cave features two annular structures (with superposed layers of stalagmites), and four smaller accumulation structures (including two in the center of the main annular structure).
Video by Jacques Jaubert et al. “Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France,” Nature (2016)

Discussion Ideas

  • The Nat Geo News article reports that a cave in southern France may hold remnants of a structure created by our Neanderthal relatives more than 175,000 years ago. The structure is made of stalagmites. What are stalagmites?
    • A stalagmite is a mineral deposit formed on a cave floor, usually by mineral-rich water dripping from above.
      • Stalagmites and stalactites (mineral deposits formed from water dripping down from a cave roof) are the most familiar forms of speleothems. Speleothems are mineral deposits formed from groundwater within underground caverns.

 

  • The Nat Geo News article says the structures have been noticed by all visitors to the Bruniquel cave, “from the first speleologists” onward. What are speleologists?
    • Speleologists are people who study caves, including their geological formation, ecology, and uses.

 

The six structures in Bruniquel cave are composed of speleothems or fragments of speleothems (speleofacts). The orange spots represent the heated zones, all located on the speleothems themselves. The red spot (structure B) represents a char concentration (mainly burnt bone fragments) on the ground. Map by Jacques Jaubert et al. “Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France,” Nature (2016)

The six structures in Bruniquel cave are composed of speleothems or fragments of speleothems (speleofacts). The orange spots represent the heated zones, all located on the speleothems themselves. The red spot (structure B) represents a char concentration (mainly burned bone fragments) on the ground.
Map by Jacques Jaubert et al. “Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France,” Nature (2016)

  • How do scientists think the stalagmite structures were built?
    • More than 400 stalagmites were cut and worn down to roughly the same length.
    • The stalagmites were arranged in two annular formations, the larger about 6.7 meters (22 feet) in diameter. (Annular simply means ring-shaped.)
    • Other stalagmites were stacked in heaps inside and outside the annular structures.

 

  • What kind of organization or organizational thinking is implied by the Bruniquel cave structures?

 

  • Why do scientists think the Bruniquel cave structures were made by Neanderthals?
    • Dissent: Well, not all scientists do think the structures are man-made. At least one paleoanthropologist thinks the structures could have been accidentally created by hibernating cave bears. “Who in their right minds builds structures 300 meters underground inside of a cave? … When bears settle in for the winter hibernation, they push all kinds of litter to the side. This looks like a place where cave bears settled in for a nice nap over and over through time.”
    • Age: The structures are old. Scientists conducted radioactive dating on the stalagmites, and found they are about 176,500 years old. Early modern humans (Homo sapiens) arrived in Europe only about 40,000 years ago. The spatial organization at Bruniquel Cave is the first one attributed with certitude to the early Middle Palaeolithic.
    • Construction: The annular shape of the structures indicate they were made on purpose—the heaps of stalagmites are deliberately arranged. The cave also has evidence of fire and charred bits of bone, often telltale signs of Neanderthal habitation.
      • Study authors say the construction of the circles indicates they were not made by cave bears: “[B]ear dens are generally smaller than the largest ring … and the animals don’t stack stalagmites so much as excavate hollows and brush things aside. Plus, Jaubert notes, ‘bears do not make fire.’”

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Nat Geo: Neanderthals Built Mysterious Stone Circles

Nat Geo: Why We Explore activity

(extra credit!) Nature: Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France

5 responses to “Did Neanderthals Build Stone Circles?

  1. Pingback: 10 Mysterious Discoveries Of Pre-Human Art | New Viral·

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  4. I am thinking that that might be a type of primitive hot tub because those stones would warm up nice and it looks to be holding water even to this day, well done boys “) A holy site bare minimum, reminds me a little of Stonehenge our love of stone structures goes way back.

  5. Pingback: Did Neanderthals Build Stone Circles? — Nat Geo Education Blog – Welcome to the World of Ekasringa Avatar!·

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