Radiocarbon dates hint that human sister species was more sophisticated than previously thought.
Fossils and artefacts pulled from the Grotte du Renne cave in central France present anthropologists with a Pleistocene puzzle. Strewn among the remains of prehistoric mammals are the bones of Neanderthals, along with bladelets, bone points and body ornaments belonging to what archaeologists call the Châtelperronian culture. Such complex artefacts are often attributed to modern humans, but a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that Neanderthals created the objects in imitation of their Homo sapiens neighbors1.
How the Grotte du Renne deposit formed has important implications for how we view our extinct sister species. If Neanderthals left the assemblage, then they were capable of a degree of symbolic behaviour thought to be unique to humans.
The remains and artefacts were found together during excavations between 1949 and 1963, but they were not necessarily deposited at the same time. In 2010, Thomas Higham, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, UK, and his colleagues2 used radiocarbon evidence to argue that the bones and tools were mixed together from higher and lower layers of the cave strata, representing different occupations of the site between 45,000 and 28,000 years ago. Some of the artefacts might have been created by modern humans but then settled down into the Neanderthal layers.
Today, Jean-Jacques Hublin, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the fossils and artefacts were not churned together. The researchers dated 40 bone fragments from several layers in the cave, and found that those in the Châtelperronian layers were between 44,500 and 41,000 years old. None of the dated bones from the Châtelperronian time frame matched dates for higher or lower layers, and Hublin says that this “makes it very unlikely that major admixture occurred.”