Bruniquel Cave, in southern France, is home to a primitive stone circle, found deep in the darkest recesses of its subterranean chambers, and is considered to predate habitation in the region by modern humans. Much like Chauvet Cave, with it’s detailed and ancient artwork adorning it’s walls, Bruniquel Cave offers us a rare message from our distant ancestors, and what they were capable of constructing and communicating. However, an amazing new announcement by a research team has pushed back the sheer antiquity of the site, and possibly along with it, the development of the human mind.

First discovered in 1990 by 15-year-old Bruno Kowalsczewski, Bruniquel Cave is home to a number of unique artificial artifacts, including burnt animal bones, cave art, and perhaps most importantly, broken stalagmite segments that had been arranged into circular structures on the cave floor. The artifacts are attributed to Neanderthals, as modern humans would not arrive in the area until nearly 10,000 years after the dates indicated by initial radiocarbon dating attempts.

Initially documented by archaeologist Francois Rouzaud, it was found that the 400 pieces of stalagmite making up the circles were deliberately broken off of the cave floor. These circles were found in a chamber 336 meters (1,100 feet) into the cave, accessed by a 30 meter (100-foot) long, narrow passageway that an individual must squeeze through to pass. The depth and difficulty of access to the chamber indicated it had a more important religious use — with such a long and arduous passageway to gain entry, this chamber was not simply used for shelter.

Rouzaud initially carbon dated the site to 47,600 years ago, however this number was considered suspect, as radiocarbon dating techniques can only be reliably used to date objects back to 50,000 years, and the Bruniquel dates were too close to that cutoff point. Unfortunately, further research into Bruniquel Cave stalled when Rouzaud succumbed to a heart attack in 1999.

In 2013, an archaeological team re-entered the site to further Rouzaud’s work, and took core samples of some of the stalagmites, for use in uranium radiometric dating. However, they made an interesting find: new mineral deposits had formed on the rocks after they had been broken off, providing the team with definite boundary layers in the stalagmites to use for dating the work done on them. And the numbers that came from the dating process floored them.

The samples were found to be 176,500 years old.

“When I announced the age to Jacques [Jaubert], he asked me to repeat it because it was so incredible,” says research team lead Sophie Verheyden, a stalagmite expert from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. Jacques Jaubert, the team’s archaeologist, had reason for his double-take on that number, as the earliest human constructions, typically crude ruins, can only be dated back to a mere 20,000 years old.

Adding to the importance of the site is the high probability that the circles were constructed by a team of individuals, as opposed to a lone worker, with the individual pieces arranged carefully in their formations. There are also indications that heat, using fire, was applied to the to the stalagmites to crack them off of their foundations. “The Neanderthal group responsible for these constructions had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought,” according to the team’s study paper.

As more is discovered about Neanderthals, the assumption that they were primitive brutes continues to dissolve, painting a picture of a far more sophisticated people. “I think we have several lines of evidence showing that the cognitive abilities and behaviors of Neanderthals were complex,” explains Marie Soressi of Leiden University. “But we had no direct evidence of their ability to build. That changes the picture for me. It’s puzzling to find such structures so deep inside the cave.” 

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