The term Neanderthal has been a reliable insult for years. It lends a certain anthropological panache to traditional disparagement. But some recently discovered and very old geometric rock piles suggest that Neanderthals were much smarter and more cultured than we thought.
As Natalia Reagan explains in today's DNews report, these most recent findings add to a growing list of evidence that Neanderthals were actually quite intelligent and innovative.
A quick primer: Neanderthals -- it's pronounced with a hard "t" -- were an early form of the human species that lived in Europe and parts of Asia and went extinct around 40,000 years ago. They were closely related to modern humans, sharing about 99.5 percent of the same DNA. The first Neanderthal bones were found in 1856 in Germany's Neander valley.
Shorter and stockier than humans, Neanderthals are behind the popular conception of the cave man. Conventional scientific wisdom is that humans (homo sapiens) basically outcompeted Neanderthals (homo neanderthalensis) and hence won the evolutionary sweepstakes.
RELATED: Could Neanderthals Talk Like Us?
Now we're rethinking all of that. For one thing, sequencing of the Neanderthal genome revealed that the species actually survived, genetically speaking. Humans and Neanderthals apparently bred at some point, because many modern-day humans actually have traces of Neanderthal DNA. [Insert your own NFL lineman joke here.]
Evidence suggests Neanderthals weren't just mindless cavemen, either. They buried their dead, used tools and gathered plants with medicinal properties. And as the new findings reveal, they also created art.
Analysis of six rock structures found in Bruniquel Cave in southwest France presents the strongest evidence yet that Neanderthals had evolved a kind of culture. Made from broken stalagmites, the rock structures have geometric elements and may have held religious or ritual significance.
What's more, the structures date back to 176,000 years ago -- predating the very presence of modern humans in Europe. So there you have it: Not only were Neanderthals more sophisticated than we thought, they got to France before we did.
-- Glenn McDonald
The Verge: Neanderthals Were Building Complex Cave Structures Much Longer Ago Than We Thought
Life Science: LifeNeanderthals: Facts About Our Extinct Human Relatives
Nature: Oldest Ancient-Human DNA Details Dawn Of Neanderthals