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venture into the depths of a cave , helping to reduce the dark, a torch in hand. Find a vast room bristling with stalagmites. The break in the hundreds. assemble them to build small circular enclosure, keeping alive the flickering firelight – to find the way back to the open air. “There are some years , said Jacques Jaubert, prehistory professor at the University of Bordeaux, I never thought that Neanderthals, I study for thirty years, is capable. “ This is however what he described in an article by an international team and published in the journal Nature Thursday, May 26: there are 176 500 years, man Neanderthal built enigmatic structures over 300 meters from the entrance of the cave of Bruniquel (Tarn-et-Garonne). This is the oldest building ever discovery as far from the light of day.
The surprise of this expert testimony to the extreme rarity of remains left by Homo neanderthalensis on the European continent, yet he occupied between – 400,000 years – 40 000 years until the arrival of Homo sapiens which quickly supplanted. This retrospective amazement also may reflect bias, conscious or not, that this cousin to brute reputation has long been. “The discovery of Bruniquel brings a different perception of Neanderthals 140 000 years Homo sapiens Chauvet, he had already appropriated the underworld says Jacques Jaubert. I am impressed and respectful to this primitive exploration. “
Is it so surprising that this hominine Sturdy has not been afraid of the dark? This fellow, who mastered fire, inhumait its dead and appears ocher, also carved stone and faced the animals (bears, reindeer, bison, mammoths, etc.) and the fierce climate of his day. It was not a coward. “Even today, all people do not go into the underworld: they are sometimes taboo, ignored, or frighten” , says Jacques Jaubert
“But when there is a resource, people are less reluctant” , testifies Sophie Verheyden (Institute Royal of Natural sciences of Belgium), which has been observed in caves in Mexico and Yemen. The caver and specialist in the study of speleothems (stalactite and stalagmite), to whom we owe the rediscovery of Bruniquel, wonders if the beautiful reflections of limestone (calcite) have not been part of the attraction by Neanderthals on this cave, which is carpeted. But it would enter the field of interpretation, what Jacques Jaubert refused as his study has not been further in depth.
Almost twenty years’ scientific eclipse
Let us go therefore to the facts: in the early 1990s, a young caver the region, Bruno Kowalscewski discovers overlooking the Aveyron the entrance of a cave the size of a rabbit hole, it unclogs, falling on a vast gallery, once inhabited by brown bears who are left their mark. The study was entrusted to François Rouzaud, chief curator of the Midi-Pyrenees Heritage, in 1992-1993, which makes the statement made stalagmite structures. Carbon 14 has a date more than 47 000 years, the limits of this dating method. The results, published in a journal of caving, remain quite confidential, as are debates about whether Homo sapiens or Neanderthal is the author of buildings. The death of François Rouzaud seal for almost twenty years the cave to science.
Until in 2011, Sophie Verheyden visit. Discovering the structures coated with calcite, it includes “immediately” that it would be possible to date with the new methods, analyzing their end and the base of stalagmites that caused it. In 2014, a sampling campaign is organized, private owners of the cave – who wish to remain anonymous – having reopened scientists. Samples are assigned to Hai Cheng, “pope” of Chinese dating uranium-thorium, which reveals an unsuspected seniority: 176 500 years, 1000 years near. “Breathtaking! Unheard of! “, researchers are stunned.
” Fire, this is proof that it is a human presence. “Dominique Genty (CNRS)
It should be confirmed in spring 2015, the analysis continues. The 400 “spéléofacts” which are circular structures represent 112 meters of stalagmites, more than 2.4 tons of material. There are 18 points to heats, with minerals altered by fire – probably to illuminate the scene. “The fire is proof that it is a human use” says Dominique Genty (Climate Science Laboratory and Environment, CNRS), which, as Sophie Verheyden, reconstructs past climates using speleothems. What was the weather like in Bruniquel there 176,000 years? “It was a glacial period, but relatively wet, since water flowed into the cave , he said. There are too many tree pollen at this time. “
How is Bruniquel perceived by experts ? “This is a unique discovery of its kind, although I’m not sure it tells us much about the social skills of Neanderthals , says Jean-Jacques Hublin (Max-Planck Institute ‘evolutionary anthropology in Leipzig). Understanding the function of such circular structures is a challenge. This demonstrates once again the little knowledge we have of the behavior of archaic humans Pleistocene, which are almost entirely documented by stone tools and game scraps. “
The quarrels are sure the interpretation of the behavior of Neanderthals. “The modern qualify because it is complex, as is indicated in Nature I think is misleading , believes Jean-Jacques Hublin. And it is an exaggeration to suggest that we had not considered the possibility of such constructions by Neanderthals. “
The debate on modernity Neanderthal divide the scientific community. Some see it as a naturally supplanted by the modern man came archaic human from Africa, others want to make her equal unlucky – as an anachronistic figure of the noble savage cut off by an unscrupulous colonizers. Genetics has recently upset these designs frozen by showing that these two humanities were crossed, mixed and perhaps loved, so that we carry in our DNA still some Neanderthal DNA percent.
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“Bruniquel, which is a fascinating discovery shows us that the circular structures were part of material culture Neanderthals” says Wil Roebroeks, University of Leiden (Netherlands). He recalled that a French team led by Marylène Patou-Mathis (National Museum of Natural History), described in 2012 a circular building made of mammoth bones, outdoor, Ukraine, dating back 45 000 years. She could be the basis for a Neanderthal shelter.
“We put in evidence that Neanderthals were already doing that Homo sapiens would later” remark Marylène Patou-Mathis, for which the discovery of Bruniquel is part of a set of recent results of research in this direction. Krapina, Croatia, were found the remains of old eagle talons 130 000 years that had obviously been linked together to make a necklace. The researcher also evokes the cave of Abric Romani, Spain, or sleeping areas, kitchen and distinct breakdown have been identified.
“The same cognitive abilities as modern men “
” I have long believed that Neanderthals had the same cognitive abilities that contemporary modern men , said he, too, paleoanthropologist Bruno Maureille (CNRS Pacea Bordeaux) . But with Bruniquel, very strong data was to tell. “ He wondered about the function of these structures, which apparently did not respond to a ” hardware perspective. ” “There is something behind …” But what?
In the depths of a cave, do we not sought in the ritual or symbolic? “We do not know. One can also imagine a group of teens Neanderthals parties exploration, as would those of today, which break stalagmites and assemble. And 176 500 years later, it is found in Nature … But again, this is pure speculation “ says Wil Roebroeks. For him too, the discovery of Bruniquel does not mean that the organization of the Neanderthals was more complex than previously thought: “It is intriguing, and emphasized above all that their material culture, including their “ architecture ”, simply does not survive outdoors. “
We must therefore continue to explore the caves, miraculous conservatories. Bruno Maureille have no doubt that “The door opened by this discovery will push researchers to return to some of them” . It is the intention of Jacques Joubert and his colleagues, who rely fathom that of Bruniquel to see if in its gangue of calcite, other archaeological treasures are not waiting to be exhumed.
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