By Ed Yong
The cave sits in France’s scenic Aveyron Valley, but its entrance had long been sealed by an ancient rockslide. Kowalsczewski’s father had detected faint wisps of air emerging from the scree, and the boy spent three years clearing away the rubble. He eventually dug out a tight, thirty-meter-long passage that the thinnest members of the local caving club could squeeze through. They found themselves in a large, roomy corridor. There were animal bones and signs of bear activity, but nothing recent. The floor was pockmarked with pools of water. The walls were punctuated by stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that stick up).
Some 336 meters into the cave, the caver stumbled across something extraordinary—a vast chamber where several stalagmites had been deliberately broken. Most of the 400 pieces had been arranged into two rings—a large one between 4 and 7 metres across, and a smaller one just 2 metres wide. Others had been propped up against these donuts. Yet others had been stacked into four piles. Traces of fire were everywhere, and there was a mass of burnt bones.
Recognizing the site’s value, the caver brought in archaeologist Francois Rouzaud. Using carbon-dating, Rouzaud estimated that a burnt bear bone found within the chamber was 47,600 years old, which meant that the stalagmite rings were older than any known cave painting. It also meant that they couldn’t have been the work of Homo sapiens. Their builders must have been the only early humans in the south of France at the time: Neanderthals.
The discovery suggested that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than anyone had given them credit for. They wielded fire, ventured deep underground, and shaped the subterranean rock into complex constructions. Perhaps they even carried out rituals; after all, there was no evidence that anyone actually lived in the cave, so what else were the rings and mounds for?
Rouzaud would never know. In April 1999, while guiding colleagues through a different cave, he suffered a fatal heart attack. With his death, work on the Bruniquel Cave ceased, and its incredible contents were neglected. They’ve only now re-entered the limelight because Sophie Verheyden went on holiday.
She knew that Rouzaud’s date of 47,600 years was impressive but suspect. Carbon-dating is only accurate for samples younger than 50,000 years, so the Bruniquel material was hitting the technique’s limits. They could well have been much older. To get a better estimate, Verheyden assembled a team including archaeologist Jacques Jaubert and fellow stalagmite expert Dominique Genty. In 2013, they got permission to study the site and crawled into it themselves. “I’m not very big, and I had to put one arm before me and one behind to get through,” says Verheyden. “It’s kind of magical, even without the structures.”
Their date? 176,500 years ago, give or take a few millennia.
“When I announced the age to Jacques, he asked me to repeat it because it was so incredible,” says Verheyden. Outside Bruniquel Cave, the earliest, unambiguous human constructions are just 20,000 years old. Most of these are ruins—collapsed collections of mammoth bones and deer antlers. By comparison, the Bruniquel stalagmite rings are well-preserved and far more ancient.
And if Rouzaud’s work made it unlikely that modern humans built the rings, Verheyden’s study grinds that possibility into the dust. Neanderthals must have been responsible. There simply wasn’t any other hominin in that region at that time.
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