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A 51,000-Year-Old Bone Carving Supports Neanderthals' Creativity

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Beneath the pine and birch forest of northern Germany lies Unicorn Cave, named for the bones found by medieval treasure hunters.

DIRK LEDER: Being very smart people, those excavators sold these unicorn bones to pharmacies as a remedy for various diseases and illnesses.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Dirk Leder is with the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage in Hanover. He says the bones were not from unicorns - disappointing, I know. They were from real life animals, like cave bears.

KELLY: But now, Leder and his colleagues have found real treasure in Unicorn Cave - the toe bone of a giant deer engraved with a series of diagonal lines.

LEDER: This creates a pattern, this chevron pattern. And also, it became clear that these engravings were quite deep.

SHAPIRO: He says they were deeper than the cuts on butchered animal bones.

KELLY: After trying themselves to engrave cow bones with flint tools, the scientists figured it might have taken maybe an hour and a half to carve these tiny designs.

LEDER: So there was a lot of thinking and planning going into this object.

SHAPIRO: But thinking and planning by whom?

KELLY: Well, writing in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, Leder's team says the bone is at least 51,000 years old. That is before Europe was settled by our species, Homo sapiens, suggesting the artist was a Neanderthal.

BARBARA KING: So I'm happy to know that we now have another piece of evidence to suggest that Neanderthals engaged esthetically with their environment.

SHAPIRO: Barbara King is an emerita professor of anthropology at William & Mary. She was not involved in the work.

KING: We already know that Neanderthals decorate their bodies with bird feathers. They do bury their dead in very complex and thoughtful ways. It's time to sort of just say full out, yes, Neanderthals are capable of creating art. They are capable of symbolic thinking.

SHAPIRO: Other scientists have said perhaps humans endowed Neanderthals with these skills in our distant evolutionary past. After all, it's well-known we exchange genes. Why not knowledge?

KELLY: But King says it's a mistake to think humans are the only creative beings.

KING: It's quite a habit of our species to think of ourselves as different from the rest of the world, whereas we know that many, many animals think and feel and create and live beyond survival.

KELLY: An adjacent editorial points out that even if Neanderthals did learn from humans, learning from others and copying their innovations, that is in itself, of course, the sign of intelligence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.