Measuring the Bruniquel Cave for a recent archaeo-magnetic study (© Etienne Fabre – SSAC)

Measuring the Bruniquel Cave for a recent archaeo-magnetic study (© Etienne Fabre – SSAC)

Sure, the 14,000-year-old cave paintings recently found in Spain are impressive, with their romping bison and horses, but a far older ancient art mystery is being untangled in France. The Bruniquel Cave in the Aveyron Valley contains two curious ringed walls that are the center of a structure formed from around 400 broken stalagmites, appearing a bit like an unhinged Urs Fischer installation. And recent research dates it over 175,000 years old, some 40,000 years before modern humans strode across the continent.

3D reconstruction of structures in the Bruniquel Cave (© Xavier Muth – Get in Situ, Archéotransfert – SHS-3D, 3D imaging by Pascal Mora) (click to enlarge)

The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) announced the findings on May 25, with the research team’s article subsequently published in the journal Nature. Led by Jacques Jaubert of the University of Bordeaux, Sophie Verheyden of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, and Dominique Genty of the CNRS, the reveal indicates that Neanderthals were far more organized than they’ve long been given credit. The researchers conclude that the structures “suggest that the Neanderthal group responsible for these constructions had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought for this hominid species.”

In their article, they explain the dating process:

Uranium-series dating of stalagmite regrowths on the structures and on burnt bone, combined with the dating of stalagmite tips in the structures, give a reliable and replicated age of 176.5 thousand years (±2.1 thousand years), making these edifices among the oldest known well-dated constructions made by humans. Their presence at 336 metres from the entrance of the cave indicates that humans from this period had already mastered the underground environment, which can be considered a major step in human modernity.

Measuring the Bruniquel Cave for a recent archaeo-magnetic study (© Etienne Fabre – SSAC)

Ian Sample reported for the Guardian that the formations were initially found in the 1990s, and at that time were thought to be around 50,000 years old. The study follows recent evidence of Neanderthal art in Spain, such as a single red dot in a cave, and rock engravings in another subterranean site. Since there aren’t other examples to compare, as of now the purpose of the stalagmite rings remains unclear, although the researchers speculate that based “on most Upper Palaeolithic cave incursions, we could assume that they represent some kind of symbolic or ritual behaviour, but could they rather have served for an unknown domestic use or simply as a refuge? Future research will try to answer these questions.”

Lucky for our understanding of Neanderthal culture, the formations were spared any modern human intervention, a fate which marred the nearby Cave of Mayrières. In 1992, a youth group attempting to clean graffiti there also rubbed away some of the 15,000-year-old old cave paintings.

In the video below from CNRS, you can find out more about the exact process of dating the formations, and the ongoing research on this Neanderthal enigma.

Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France” is online at the journal Nature.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...