Dozens of animal skulls found in Neanderthal cave, suggesting they had symbolic use

Neanderthals placed a large number of animal skulls in a Spanish cave 40,000 years ago. But why?

The discovery has scientists puzzled.

Cueva Des-Cubierta is a multi-level cave system in the Madrid region of Spain, first discovered in 1978. Archaeologists have studied the caves for decades as the location possesses indications that they were used in Neanderthal rituals.

Researchers climbed to the third level of the cave and found 35 large animal skulls. All the crania came from animals which sported either horns or antlers. Among them were 28 bovine animals including bison and aurochs, five deer and two rhinoceroses.

Nearby, Neanderthal teeth and tools indicate that the ancient humans called the cave systems home.

Plenty of Neanderthal caves have been found in the past. And many of them have animal bones within them. But this discovery is different.

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The scientists argue in a paper published in Nature Human Behavior, that the presence of the skulls indicates something other than Neanderthal feasts.

Finding a collection of large animal skulls in a cave is highly irregular. Today’s hunter gather communities will rarely take the heads of prey back to their dwellings. The skulls are heavy, cumbersome and provide little by way of meat. That very few animal teeth and other bones are present in the cave also indicates the creatures were butchered elsewhere and only their decapitated heads brought inside.

Gneiss anvil under an aurochs cranium. Credit: Nature Human Behaviour (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-022-01503-7.

Therefore, the authors conclude, “the introduction of the crania, and not of other parts of the carcasses of greater nutritional interest, into the Cueva Des-Cubierta seems to have been deliberate and not related to subsistence.”

“Rather, it seems more related to their symbolic use,” they add.

It’s not clear exactly what the skulls meant to the ancient humans or how they were used. Neanderthals aren’t known to have performed rituals with animal heads – this is something that has only been seen in the archaeological record in relation to early modern humans.

By analysing the bones, the team was able to determine that the animal heads were carefully removed from the bodies and had been “worked” in different ways involving tools and, in some cases, fire.

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The fact that the skulls still had their horns and antlers lead the researchers to suggest that they may have been hunting trophies.

Whatever the purpose of the skulls, the Neanderthals appear to have been stockpiling the skulls for quite some time. The animal crania occupy an entire sediment layer, representing “years, decades, centuries or even millennia” according to the researchers.

Neanderthal caves in the past have typically been related exclusively to fairly mundane activities like hunting or tool-making.

“[T]o date, no site exclusively related to symbolic activity has been identified in the Neanderthal archaeological record,” the authors write.

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