Neanderthal Cave Structures

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Image: Michel Soulier/SSAC

The Neanderthal cave structures are arrangements of stalagmites discovered in the Bruniquel Cave in south-west France that have been dated to around 175,000 years ago, well before the migration of modern humans into Europe,[1] and among the oldest built structures yet to have been discovered.

The cave was initially explored by speleologists in the early 1990's who discovered, around 300 meters from the entrance, a low semi-circular construction on the cave floor, as well as other smaller assemblages. Work on the site stopped, however, when the lead archaeologist died in 1999, only to be picked up again in 2013 by a team led by Sophie Verheyden, a palaeoclimatologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels.[2]

The arrangements are constructed from up to four hundred stalagmites[3] broken off from other parts of the cave and laid out horizontally in overlapping layers to create low-walled semi-enclosed areas, the larger measuring 6.7 meters (22 feet) across. Vertically positioned stalagmite parts are also in evidence and appear to have been used to strengthen and support the horizontal elements. The smaller circle adjacent is 2.2 meters (7.2 feet) across.[4]

The larger structure is 6.7 meters (22 feet) across, while the smaller one is 2.2 meters (7.2 feet). Xavier MUTH - Get in Situ/Archéotransfert/Archéovision -SHS-3D/base photographique Pascal Mora

Uranium-series dating has established consistent ages of around 175,000 years for the creation of the structures. The dating procedure involved sampling the material of the stalagmites, and the calcite layers that have grown over them in the millennia since the arrangements were laid out.[5] The site has been remarkably well preserved, the original entrance to the cave having been sealed by rock fall before the end of the Pleistocene period.

The purpose of the constructions remains mysterious. Evidence of charring at multiple locations appears to confirm the existence of hearths.[6] The site is well beyond the reach of daylight from the cave's original entrance. The discovery is considered of major significance to our understanding of hominid development, demonstrating Neanderthal deep cave use and a degree of social organisation not previously evidenced at sites in use this early in European prehistory.[7]


  1. Generally considered to have occurred between 75,000 and 45,000 years ago. See: Hua Liu, Franck Prugnolle, Andrea Manica, and François Balloux, "A Geographically Explicit Genetic Model of Worldwide Human-Settlement History," The American Journal of Human Genetics, May 30, 2006, retrieved August 30, 2016
  2. Ewen Callaway, "Neanderthals built cave structures — and no one knows why," Nature, May 25, 2016, retrieved August 30, 2016
  3. Nadia Drake, "Neanderthals Built Mysterious Stone Circles," National Geographic, May 25, 2016, retrieved August 30, 2016
  4. Callaway, "Neanderthals built cave structures."
  5. Ibid.
  6. Josh Davis, "Oldest Known Neanderthal Construction Found In French Cave Is 176,000 Years Old," IFL Science, May 26, 2016, retrieved August 30, 2016
  7. Drake, "Neanderthals Built Mysterious Stone Circles."