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Prof Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum, London.
The remarkable discovery of different-sized 'structures' made from purposefully broken stalagmites deep within Bruniquel Cave, south west France, would be significant for any period of time, but at around 175,000 years, these must have been made by early Neanderthals, the only known human inhabitants of Europe at this time.
The purpose of the structures and concentrated combustion zones which are mostly on the broken stalagmites rather than on the ground remain enigmatic, but they demonstrate that some Neanderthals, at least, were as much 'at home' deep within the cave as at its entrance.
There are examples of human habitation 30 or 40 metres into the dark zones of caves from sites of this or even greater age in Africa , but the Bruniquel occupation is some ten times deeper into the cave, and shows constructions as complex as some made by modern humans only 20 or 30,000 years ago.
Accumulations of early human bodies deep within caves are known from Rising Star Cave (South Africa, currently undated) and the Sima de los Huesos (Atapuerca, Spain, ~400ka), but the circumstances and meaning of their deposition are disputed, and there is no (Rising Star) or only loosely associated (the Sima) archaeological material with the skeletons.
The complex Bruniquel structures are well-dated to within a long cold glacial stage, and at that time the cave might have provided a temporary more temperate refuge. It is unclear to me whether there might be important associated archaeological or fossil material under unexcavated sediment or later calcitic encrustations. If there is still-buried debris from occupation, it would help us to determine whether this was a functional refuge or shelter, perhaps roofed using wood and skins, or something which had more symbolic or ritual significance.
Some of the burning must surely be associated with lighting in such a dark location, but only further discoveries from this or other sites will show us how common were such deep cave occupations in the ancient past, and what their purpose might have been.
Whatever the answers, this discovery provides clear evidence that Neanderthals had fully human capabilities in the planning and the construction of 'stone' structures, and that some of them penetrated deep into caves where artificial lighting would have been essential.
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