Sometime between 135,000-50,000 years ago, hands slick with animal blood carried more than 35 huge horned heads into a small, dark, winding cave. Tiny fires were lit amidst a boulder-jumbled floor, and the flame-illuminated chamber echoed to dull pounding, cracking and squelching sounds as the skulls of bison, wild cattle, red deer and rhinoceros were smashed open.
This isn’t the gory beginning of an ice age horror novel, but the setting for a fascinating Neanderthal mystery. At the start of 2023 researchers announced that a Spanish archaeological site known as Cueva Des-Cubierta (a play on “uncover” and “discover”) held an unusually large number of big-game skulls. All were fragmented but their horns or antlers were relatively intact, and some were found near to traces of hearths.
While caves in the upper Lozoya Valley, about an hour’s drive north of Madrid, had been known about since the 19th Century, the Des-Cubierta site was only found in 2009 during investigation of other cavities on the hillside. As researchers slowly uncovered the layers inside, a startling picture of the cave began to emerge. The skulls, they argued, pointed to something beyond the simple detritus of hunting and gathering. Instead, they saw the skulls as symbolic – perhaps even a shrine containing trophies of the chase.
If correct, it would raise a tantalising prospect – Neanderthals were capable of the kind of complex symbolic concepts and behaviours that characterise our own species.
But can we really suggest Neanderthals, a hominin species that became extinct around 40,000 years ago, developed rituals centred on the skulls of their prey? Other discoveries highlight varied aspects of their culture, and some have even suggested Neanderthals produced forms of what we might call art. But the answers are far from clear. [Continue reading…]