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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Early Neanderthals Had Religion Before Modern Humans?

Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France | Nature Letters.

This paper passed beneath my radar last August but it illustrates something rather nice about science - the way it continually challenges our assumptions and, if we are honest, causes us to change our minds and revise our understanding. It also shows that Neanderthals may have had religion before modern humans had left Africa.

The paper deals with the discovery in a French cave of artefacts which could only have been made by Neanderthals and a very long time ago.

Although we have been revising our opinion about Neanderthals for several years now and no longer see them as primitive beasts with low intellect and nothing much by way of culture - all brawn and little brain - this find suggests they were socially organised, skilled and cultured people with an understanding of the world that called for rituals in an attempt to control it.

It also shows how good science double-checks and recognises the limitations of established techniques because, on checking, it looks very much as though the initial dating of the artefacts was wildly out. This will no doubt excite creationists who like to pretend that all scientific dating is wrong if it gives a time-line they don't like, but they should read on. It shows nothing of the sort other than showing that at the extreme end of it's usable range, C14 dating can give an unrealistically low estimate of age.

The cave had been sealed since a landslide had buried the entrance under scree in the Pleistocene era. When it was rediscovered in 1990, no modern human had entered the cave before. Yet deep within it were annular structures quite obviously deliberately constructed from broken stalagmites, the remaining stumps of which could still be seen. Associated with them were the remains of fire, including burned animal bones. There were no signs of regular hominid occupation as a dwelling and the location deep within the cave suggests a ritual/religious use, maybe secret rites of some sort.

Very little is known about Neanderthal cultures1, particularly early ones. Other than lithic implements and exceptional bone tools2, very few artefacts have been preserved. While those that do remain include red and black pigments3 and burial sites4, these indications of modernity are extremely sparse and few have been precisely dated, thus greatly limiting our knowledge of these predecessors of modern humans5. Here we report the dating of annular constructions made of broken stalagmites found deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwest France. The regular geometry of the stalagmite circles, the arrangement of broken stalagmites and several traces of fire demonstrate the anthropogenic origin of these constructions. 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.

Initial C14 dating of the burned bones gave an age of 47,600 years which is close to the upper limit for C14 dating of about 50,000 years. However, the fact that the stalagmites had been broken then left to regrow over time gave another opportunity for dating - the point at which the stalagmite had been broken gave a neat junction at which the precise layer laid down immediately following the break could be identified. When the team measured uranium levels either side of the break, they came up with an age of 176,500 years!

176,500 for the earliest know human artefact is much earlier that the previous earliest known date for unambiguously human artefacts outside this cave of 20,000 years, and it makes the artefact unambiguously Neanderthal.

So we now need to revise our thinking and push the date by which Neanderthals were sufficiently advanced intellectually and culturally developed to have religious or magic rituals to a time before the ancestors of modern Homo sapiens had spread beyond Africa and before they were that advanced on current archaeological evidence.

What creationists have to accept is that they can't derive any comfort from the fact that science has had to reconsider and revise its understanding. Even if they reject the uranium radiometric dating and go with the C14 dating, they still have to account for 47,600 year-old burned bones if Earth is only 6,000 years old. They also have to explain how this cave, like so many others in France, was unaffected by a global flood just 4,000 years ago and show no signs whatever of ever having been submerged.

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