Human culture may be much older than previously thought.

Here’s the story.

In 1990, a teenager discovered a massive cave in southern France. Exploring deep underground, others eventually found a massive chamber with broken stalagmites arranged into two circles, evidence that fire had been brought and sustained deep underground, and bones gathered and arranged. Clear evidence of prehistorical human activity, in other words. Carbon dating put the age of the discovery at about 50,000 years ago. And scientists lost interest in the site for over twenty years.

Then another researcher, Sophie Verheyden, decided to investigate further. She was suspicious that the dating might not be accurate, because the age is right on the border of where carbon dating becomes unreliable. So she instead used radiometric dating with different chemicals from the broken stalagmites themselves. The new date? 176,000 years ago.

If the result holds, it completely changes the picture of what Neanderthals were capable of in terms of culture, technology, and sophistication, and puts the age of human culture several times older than anyone previously thought.

Very cool stuff, in other words.

That doesn’t say much for the intelligence of our earliest ancestors, the fact that it took them 176,000 years to invent Facebook.



From fire to Facebook is DEvolution.

Definitely! Thanks for sharing this.

Not seeing anything revolutionary - we already knew Neanderthals had sophisticated culture (see below), yet were relatively culturally static (as evidence by their toolset not changing much), so it’s no surprise that we find evidence stretching further back than the relatively recent stuff we build our impression on. And that article saying “more sophisticated than anyone had given them credit for” is bullshit - various researchers have credited Neanderthals with body painting, simple cave art, wearing feathers and building homes from mammoth bones (at around 40000 BCE, that contradicts that article’s date of 20,000 years for oldest habitation, as well) all of which, IMO, are more sophisticated than making a circular fireplace.

Not saying this *isn’t *a fascinating site, and the use of speleochronology is cool, but hardly “completely changes the picture of what Neanderthals were capable of in terms of culture, technology, and sophistication”. Rather, just another datum point in the continued rehabilitation of the Neanderthal image.

Yeah, news articles are really bad that way.

“This discovery of a 15,000 year old bone harpoon head from Siberia completely changes our understanding of human history.”


“Well, before we had no evidence of bone harpoons in Siberia 15,000 years ago. Now we do. It’s completely different!”

175,999. Facebook was invented a year earlier, but it took a while to get it up and running.

Yep. Shit, chimps have culture, so we can expect “culture” to be at least 6M years old just from knowing that. And the whole Neanderthal = Mindless Brute has been old hat since at least the 1960s.

Interesting. What determines that a culture exists among animals? Group dynamics? Do wolves have a culture? Lions? Whales?

Basically, culture represents learned behaviors that are unique to a specific population and taught from one member to another. Wikipedia has a good analysis of it, and some examples. Animal culture - Wikipedia

In short, “culture” is pretty widespread, and to think it doesn’t go back at least a couple million years is either to use a very narrow definition of culture, or to keep buying into some very old ideas. (Which nevertheless still makes this idea “new” to the popular press.)

How does dating the stalagmites give us the date of occupation?

It’s in the article. Stalagmites were broken off and deliberately arranged. Then more limestone was deposited on the broken surfaces from water flow on the floor of the cave. Thus they dated the time of breakage.

Humans from 100,000 years ago were not simple. They were living breathing people like you and me.

With a much, much smaller knowledge and tool base.

Except Neandertals weren’t “like you and me”. They were similar, but different. They had a very static physical culture that didn’t change for a hundred thousand years. They had brains larger than modern humans, but arranged differently. They weren’t the subhuman brutes of popular imagination, or like intellectually disabled modern humans, but they weren’t just like modern human either.

Well, of course. They didn’t have search engines.

I suspect that you can also do something similar to tree-ring dating with stala[gm/ct]ites. The amount of limestone deposited depends on the water cycle, which varies over the year, and further varies from one year to another.

You could, but not just by plain counting backwards like for trees. The radiometric methods like U-series TIMS work better at getting dates, then deposition rates can be related to climate.