A bear radius fragment with seventeen incisions (one of them incomplete) was excavated in the 1950s in the Dziadowa Skała Cave in the Upland of Częstochowa, southern Poland, from a deposit with fauna remains from the Eemian period (between 130,000 and 115,000 years ago). This object has been cited as the earliest evidence of Neanderthals’ cognitive abilities in the region but has never been studied in detail. Now, a team of researchers has reexamined it using microscopy and X-ray computed tomography.

The results show that the bone was marked with a retouched stone tool, and the incisions were produced during a single episode by a right-handed individual using repeated unidirectional movements of the cutting edge of the tools.

The incisions are evidently the result of deliberate action, not a side effect of some practical activity. The bear radius from Dziadowa Skała is, therefore, another piece of evidence for the emergence of symbolic culture, evolved by hominids in Africa and Eurasia, and represents the oldest example of marked bone north of the Carpathians.

Results of tomographic analysis a: 2D cross section, b: 3D view, c: area subjected to analysis, d: surface analyzed after removing the object shape and applying high-pass filtering, e: incisions and their numbering
Results of tomographic analysis a: 2D cross section, b: 3D view, c: area subjected to analysis, d: surface analyzed after removing the object shape and applying high-pass filtering, e: incisions and their numbering. Credit: G. Ziółkowski et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science

The results confirm that it is one of the oldest symbolic cultural objects found in Europe and provides significant evidence of Neanderthals’ cognitive abilities.

The Dziadowa Skała site was excavated between 1952 and 1954 by Waldemar Chmielewski. The cave that housed the bone is a natural karst cavity in a mountainous landscape of Jurassic limestone rocks located on the slope of a wooded hill near Łężec in Skarżyce, a peripheral district of Zawiercie. The bone in question was recovered in 1953 and was initially misidentified as a rib belonging to a cave bear.

The morphology of the incisions shows that they were not made with the apex of a flake-like tool or a burin-like tool. All morphological and structural features of the incisions clearly confirm that the marks found on the bone are an ordered set, whose organization does not resemble traces associated with dismembering, cutting, or accidental formation as a result of post-depositional factors. All these characteristics clearly demonstrate the intentionality and systematic organization of the incision-making process.

Marks on the bone surface
Marks on the bone surface. Credit: T. Płonka, M. Diakowski, T. Gąsior, N. Lenkow / Journal of Archaeological Science

The facts support the argument for the emergence of symbolic culture in many places during different periods of the Paleolithic. A greater number of symbolic manifestations identified with Neanderthals come from Europe, from the period 60,000-40,000 years ago and later.

A clear increase in symbolic artifacts among Neanderthal communities is observed in the Châtelperronian, which may be related to the expansion of Homo sapiens in Europe.

The bear bone from the Dziadowa Skała Cave is an example of early symbolic behavior by Neanderthals. This activity is manifested in findings of simple geometric patterns in different media, fragmentary evidence of the emergence and occurrence of this behavioral pattern worldwide, starting from Homo erectus.


Sources

Tomasz Płonka, Andrzej Wiśniewski, et al., A Middle Palaeolithic incised bear bone from the Dziadowa Skała Cave, Poland: the oldest marked object north of the Carpathian Mountains. Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 166, doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2024.105971


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