A mysterious series of rock formations recently discovered in France have been identified as potentially religious or cultural work of Neanderthals from over 175,000 years ago, over four times older than the oldest cave paintings. Inside Bruniquel Cave in southwest France, researchers have found formations of broken stalagmites that appear to have been arranged intentionally, and are scorched in places with fire. These findings suggest that Neanderthals were not the brainless brutes we think of them as, but similar to us in their capacity for culture.
The study, led by Belgium-based scientist Sophie Verheyden, cites, "The regular geometry of the stalagmite circles, the arrangement of broken stalagmites, and several traces of fire," as well as their location over 1,000' into the cave to suggest mastery of the environment, "which can be considered a major step in human modernity." Uranium dating (more accurate than carbon dating) indicates that these rock circles were made 176,600 years ago makes this feat very impressive. We know that Neanderthals could make markings resembling abstract art and use fire, but they're not known for exploring caves past the reach of sunlight, much less to create works that could be a prehistoric sculpture garden.
Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Museum tells The Atlantic, “A plausible explanation is that this was a meeting place for some type of ritual social behavior.” If that's the case, this structure is the oldest piece of art in the world. The jury is still out on that, but it doesn't take away from the mystique of examining these structures like those of any sculpture or artist, and wondering about intention, purpose, and technical skill to create something where there was once nothing.
Check out this video from Nature.com to see more of the Neanderthal sculpture garden.
Learn more by reading the full study on Nature.com.