Engraved deer bone

What is it?

This 51,000-year-old engraved toe bone is one of the oldest works of art ever found. The bone, which is the second phalanx of a giant deer, is 56.8mm long, 38.9mm wide, and 30.9mm thick, and weighs 36.1g. The front of the bone is carved with five overlapping chevrons pointing upwards, while the lower edge displays a line of smaller incisions. The regular angles of the intersecting chevron lines indicate that they could not have been created by carnivore gnawing, and researchers conclude that they were not accidental marks either. It appears that the design was made by Neanderthals with a specific plan in mind, suggesting that the piece had some kind of symbolic meaning.

Photo: Volker Minkus © NLD.

Where was it found and when?

The bone was found in the Einhornhöhle, or ‘Unicorn Cave’, in the Harz Mountains, northern Germany. The site has been well-known since the 16th century because of the many fossilised animal bones found there, and excavations carried out since the 1980s have determined that the cave was occupied by Neanderthals from at least 130,000 years ago until c.47,000 years ago. The engraved bone was discovered in a Middle Palaeolithic context near the cave mouth in 2019. Also found nearby was an unusual assemblage consisting of other deer bones and the intact skull of a cave bear, further pointing to ritual behaviour of some sort. Research into the bone has recently been published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Why does it matter?

This engraved bone is one of the world’s earliest pieces of art, and the oldest securely dated piece created by Neanderthals. Although there are other examples of rock art and personal ornamentation that are attributed to Neanderthals and may be older, their dates are still disputed.

The meaning of the carvings and the function of the object are currently unknown. Use-wear analysis has not revealed any signs that it was used as a pendant or form of personal adornment, but the base of the phalanx is shaped in a way that makes it possible for the object to stand upright with the chevrons pointing up, suggesting that this is how it was intended to be oriented.

Microscopic analysis shows that the engraved lines are very deep, while experiments with modern cattle bones indicate that the bone may have been boiled to soften it before carving. The effort involved in the creation of the object, combined with the rarity and size of the species of deer from which the bone came, all point to it having some kind of symbolic meaning. This provides further evidence that Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thought – something once believed to be unique to Homo sapiens. Importantly, the date of the object also demonstrates that Neanderthals were exhibiting this symbolic behaviour several thousand years before H sapiens arrived in Central Europe, disproving suggestions that it only came about through contact with modern humans.

A paper about the engraved bone has recently been published in Nature Ecology & Evolution https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-021-01487-z.

The object will be displayed in the Braunschweigisches Landesmuseum (State Museum Brunswick), and then in the new Einhornhöhle museum when it is completed.