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Do Neanderthal Cave Structures Challenge Human Exceptionalism?

When I visited Great Britain years ago, I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to cross busy streets. Because cars travel on the opposite side of the road, I found myself instinctively looking in the wrong direction when checking for oncoming traffic. I quickly realized that to avoid becoming a fatality, I had to be doubly cautious when making my way across busy intersections.

Over the years, I have also come to learn that an extra measure of caution pays off when navigating “scientific” claims that Neanderthals possessed symbolic and religious capabilities just like us. The latest claim centers around the mysterious structures Neanderthals “built” deep within the interior of the Bruniquel Cave located in southwestern France.1 A number of anthropologists interpret these cave structures as evidence for Neanderthal symbolism and religious behavior.

If Neanderthals displayed symbolic and religious capabilities, it would cause serious damage to the concept of human exceptionalism (which I would argue aligns with the biblical concept of the image of God) and the RTB human origins model. But did Neanderthals even build these structures, and if they did, what exactly do these structures evince?

The Bruniquel Cave Structures

In 1990, while exploring the Bruniquel Cave, speleologists (scientists who investigate caves) came across an ensemble of stalagmites arranged to form semicircular structures in a difficult-to-access chamber about 1,000 feet from the cave entrance. They discovered a total of six structures made from about 400 pieces of stalagmites, some of which appear to be stacked to form walls.

It was only in the last few years that archaeologists began to carefully study these structures. It turns out that the structures built from the stalagmite pieces date to around 175,000 years in age. About 120 stalagmite pieces also show evidence that they were heated by fire. Archaeologists have unearthed animal bones near the structures that show probable evidence that they were heated as well. Because the only hominids present in Europe at that time were the Neanderthals, archaeologists maintain that they were the ones who built these structures.

These mysterious structures raise a number of questions. Were they the work of a lone individual, or did several Neanderthals work together to assemble the semicircular walls? If they were the work of a team, it could indicate that Neanderthals lived within a complex societal framework.

No one knows yet why Neanderthals built these structures, but many anthropologists are tempted to interpret these structures as evidence for ritualistic activities. Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History states, “A plausible explanation is that this was a meeting place for some type of ritual social behavior.”2

The Challenge to the RTB Human Origins Model

Instead of understanding hominids as evolutionary intermediates, our biblically based human origins model—described in detail in Who Was Adam?—views Neanderthals and other hominids as animals made by God with limited emotional and intellectual capabilitieslike the great apes. These capacities explain the remarkable behavior of Neanderthals, such as their tool use. But we maintain that, in spite of their intelligence, Neanderthals and other hominids lacked the image of God and, therefore, were notspiritual beings. We reserve that quality for humans alone. We view symbolism and religious expression as two facets of the image of God and, consequently, assert that Neanderthals and other hominids must lack those capabilities. Biological similarities between humans and hominids are a manifestation of common design, not common descent.

Did Neanderthals Build the Cave Structures?

Though a number of anthropologists are quick to attribute the Bruniquel Cave structures to Neanderthals, it may be that these hominids had nothing to do with them at all. This skepticism gains justification by the extreme rarity of these cave structures. It is curious that these structures date to 175,000 years in age—130,000 years before Neanderthals disappeared—and yet the only known occurrence of stalagmite semicircles is in a single cave in France.

If building these types of structures was commonplace for Neanderthals, why haven’t we seen more examples of this type of construction? Contrast the rarity of these structures with the abundant evidence for human symbolism found throughout Europe. On this basis, it is hard to argue that the rarity of these structures is due to the “incompleteness” of the archaeological record. Nor does it seem reasonable to interpret these structures as representative of Neanderthal capabilities. In fact, the rarity of the stalagmite semicircles among Neanderthal sites could be explained if these structures weren’t made by Neanderthals at all. But if they weren’t made by Neanderthals, then who or what made these semicircles?

Some anthropologists suggest that cave bears made these structures. Cave bears make hollows in caves when they hibernate. According to paleoanthropologist John Shea of Stony Brook University, “When bears settle in for the winter hibernation, they push all kinds of litter to the side. This looks like a place where cave bears settled in for a nice nap over and over through time.”3 There is evidence for cave bear activity elsewhere in the cave, but not near the structures. However, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Harold Dibble argues, “They say there’s no evidence of cave bears in this spot, [but] maybe they’re looking at the evidence for cave bears.”In other words, Dibble is suggesting that the structures attributed to Neanderthals actually reflects cave bear activity and should be interpreted in that manner.

At this juncture, it may seem far-fetched to attribute these structures to cave bears. Yet, when it comes to Neanderthals, anthropologists have a long history of interpreting archaeological finds as evidence for Neanderthal symbolism and religious activity, only to have that interpretation wither in the face of additional scientific scrutiny.5 In many instances, artifacts attributed to Neanderthal handiwork turn out to result from the activities of animals. For example, the “bird bone flutes,” thought to be made by Neanderthals, were found to be bird remains scavenged by hyenas. And the pollen grains at Neanderthal “grave sites,” thought to reflect ritualistic burials in which flowers were placed with the body, were in fact delivered to the graves by bees.

If Neanderthals Built the Structures, What Does It Mean?

If Neanderthals are the architects of the Bruniquel Cave structures, does it evince their symbolic and religious capabilities? Hardly. With only disputed evidence for Neanderthal symbolism and religious behavior, it seems unwarranted to interpret the stalagmite arrangements as evidence for symbolism and ritual practices. Given their rarity, these structures could have resulted from an “accidental” arrangement of stalagmites. Or perhaps they were the work of a single individual who had no real purpose behind the arrangement of the stalagmite pieces, other than pushing the stalagmite pieces around the cave chamber.

It is important to note that many animals produce structures, including chimpanzees. For example, these creatures make beds from specialized materials that they carefully place in selected locations within trees. Yet these creatures clearly lack symbolism and religious capacities. We don’t interpret the structures made by great apes as a manifestation of symbolism. So why should we conclude Neanderthals possessed these qualities based on the single occurrence of semicircles made from stalagmites?


For more articles exploring whether Neanderthals possess religious or spiritual capacities, please read my previous articles:

  1. Jacques Jaubert et al., “Early Neanderthal Constructions Deep in Bruniquel Cave in Southwestern France,” Nature 534 (June 2016): 111–14, doi:10.1038/nature18291.
  2. Ed Yong, “A Shocking Find in a Neanderthal Cave in France,” The Atlantic, May 25, 2016,
  3. Nadia Drake, “Neanderthals Built Mysterious Stone Circles,” National Geographic, May 25, 2016,
  4. Ewen Callaway, “Neanderthals Built Cave Structures—and No One Knows Why,” Nature News, May 25, 2016, doi:10.1038/nature.2016.19975.