The earliest example of a domestic dwelling built from bone has been discovered in the Ukraine. The structure is considered to be 44,000 years old and the builders were Neanderthals. The significance of this is that Neanderthals are supposed to be lacking in creativity and aesthetics, so they are usually portrayed as pragmatists dwelling in caves and rock shelters, largely devoid of characteristics we associate with humanity. Yet again, the evidence base shows the iconic Neanderthal to be a figment of the imagination.
"Neandertals are stumping for bragging rights as the first builders of mammoth-bone structures, an accomplishment usually attributed to Stone Age people. Humanity's extinct cousins constructed a large, ring-shaped enclosure out of 116 mammoth bones and tusks at least 44,000 years ago in West Asia, say archaeologist Laetitia Demay of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and her colleagues. The bone edifice, which encircles a 40-square-meter area in which mammoths and other animals were butchered, cooked and eaten, served either to keep out cold winds or as a base for a wooden building." (source here)
Caves are portrayed as dwelling places and burial locations for Homo neanderthalensis. This scene is from Hannover Zoo. (Source here)
Finding a building made of mammoth bones is suggestive of a lifestyle that involved creativity, forward planning, cooperation and language. To build a dwelling is suggestive of them living in one place for extended periods of time. In addition, many of the bones had been decorated with carvings and ochre pigments, revealing an aesthetic sense in Neanderthals. Here is a selection of comments from Laetitia Demay, who led the research:
"It appears that Neanderthals were the oldest known humans who used mammoth bones to build a dwelling structure.
"This mammoth bone structure could be described as the basement of a wooden cover or as a windscreen.
"Neanderthals purposely chose large bones of the largest available mammal, the woolly mammoth, to build a structure.
"The mammoth bones have been deliberately selected - long and flat bones, tusks and connected vertebrae - and were circularly arranged.
"The use of bones as building elements can be appreciated as anticipation of climatic variations. Under a cold climate in an open environment, the lack of wood led humans to use bones to build protections against the wind."
People have been talking about revising our assessment of Neanderthals for some time now, but we still find them portrayed as brutish; still as sub-human; still as making noises to communicate rather than using speech. In a report on the research, Richard Gray says that the new finds "add to the growing view that Neanderthals were in fact quite advanced humans who had their own culture and may have even used language to communicate". Another comment is provided by Simon Underdown, an academic who researches Neanderthals at Oxford Brookes University, who said:
"It's another piece in the newly emerging Neanderthal jigsaw puzzle. Far from being the stupid cavemen of popular image it's becoming increasingly clear the Neanderthals were a highly sophisticated species of human. We can now add shelter building to the list of advanced behaviours that includes burying the dead, spoken language, cooking and wearing jewellery."
What is it that stops us thinking that Neanderthals were humans like us? For more on this, and an answer, go here.
Mammoths used as food and building resources by Neanderthals: Zooarchaeological study applied to layer 4, Molodova I (Ukraine)
Laetitia Demay, Stephane Pean, Marylene Patou-Mathis
Quaternary International, In Press, Available online 26 November 2011
Abstract: Considering Neanderthal subsistence, the use of mammoth resources has been particularly discussed. Apart from procurement for food, the use of mammoth bones as building material has been proposed. The hypothesis was based on the discovery made in Molodova I, Ukraine (Dniester valley). In this large multistratified open-air site, a rich Mousterian layer was excavated. Dated to the Inter-Pleniglacial (MIS 3), it has yielded 40Ã¢â‚¬Ë†000 lithic remains associated with ca. 3000 mammal bones, mostly from mammoth. Several areas have been excavated: a pit filled with bones, different areas of activities (butchering, tool production), twenty-five hearths and a circular accumulation made of mammoth bones, described as a dwelling structure set up by Neanderthals. Attested dwelling structures made of mammoth bones are known in Upper Paleolithic sites, from Ukraine and Russia, attributed to the Epigravettian tradition. [. . .] Based on anthropogenic marks, mammoth meat has been eaten. The presence of series of striations and ochre on mammoth bones are associated with a technical or symbolic use. Furthermore, mammoth bones have been deliberately selected (long and flat bones, tusks, connected vertebrae) and circularly arranged. This mammoth bone structure could be described as the basement of a wooden cover or as a wind-screen. The inner presence of fifteen hearths, lithic artifacts and waste of mammal butchery and cooking is characteristic of a domestic area, which was probably the centre of a residential camp recurrently settled. It appears that Neanderthals were the oldest known humans who used mammoth bones to build a dwelling structure.
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