A recent archaeological discovery in central Spain suggests that Neanderthals may have engaged in symbolic behavior. Researchers excavating the Des-Cubierta cave, located approximately 45 miles north of Madrid, have uncovered a collection of animal skulls and horns that were likely assembled by Neanderthals. The site, which had a collapsed roof, was discovered in a small hill that faced west where groups of about 25 Neanderthals would periodically settle.
The researchers uncovered the frontal skulls of 35 large game animals, including bison, aurochs, and deer, along with the horns of two dangerous steppe rhinos. Some of these remains were placed on the ashes of fires, indicating that the Neanderthals may have celebrated successful hunts by collecting the skulls and horns of large animals. The researchers believe that this behavior was not related to subsistence activities, as the bones show no evidence of being used for food.
In an article published in Nature Human Behavior, the researchers speculate that the skulls and horns were collected as hunting trophies, as part of a ritual, or as part of a kind of initiatory rite. However, other archaeologists caution that symbolic behavior is difficult to prove conclusively. While the evidence at the Des-Cubierta cave is sound, it remains difficult to say for sure whether the Neanderthals were engaging in symbolic behavior or simply collecting the remains of successful hunts.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the interpretation of this site, the discovery adds to a growing body of evidence that Neanderthals were capable of more than basic survival and reproduction. Previous discoveries have shown that Neanderthals practiced cave art, decorated themselves with feathers, and buried their dead.
The discovery in central Spain provides an intriguing glimpse into the behavior of Neanderthals, and raises questions about the extent to which they engaged in symbolic behavior. Further research at this and other sites may shed more light on the fascinating world of our ancient ancestors.