A group of enthusiastic explorers squeeze their way down a dark, damp and extremely narrow tunnel before stumbling into a cave full of glistening stalactites and mighty stalagmites. Still, they pause for a moment, sensing that something is not quite right. And it’s true: these amazing structures have an astonishing secret to reveal.
When Bruno Kowalczewski’s father noticed a delicate breeze emerging from rocks in the Aveyron Valley in the south of France, the teenage boy was more than a little intrigued. And for the next three years, he became obsessed with digging through the loose rocks and stone chippings, hoping to reveal the source of the mysterious wind.
By February 1990, moreover, the 15-year-old Kowalczewski had succeeded in digging a narrow passage almost 100 feet long. Members of the SSAC, an archaeological caving club based in Caussade, France, were the first to make their way through the tiny opening and explore what lay beyond.
Amazingly, they found themselves emerging in a large cave. There were signs that bears had once been there, too, and animal bones were scattered across the floor. Truly, this was an incredible find.
About 1,100 feet in, though, the cave opened up into a massive chamber. Looking up, the party saw hundreds of impressive stalactites hanging from the ceiling. But it was the stalagmites around their feet that really stopped the explorers in their tracks.
Portions of the natural mineral deposits had been broken off and purposely arranged in two circular patterns. To the astonished cavers, they looked like giant rings. The remains of fires were also evident in the cave, and a pile of burned bones was found nearby. It was unquestionably the work of human hands.
Now the cave had actually lain unexplored since a landslide during the Pleistocene era sealed the entrance and cut it off from the outside world. And when Kowalczewski rediscovered it tens of thousands of years later, it was dubbed Bruniquel Cave after a nearby walled village.
The first people to explore the cave soon realized that they were on to something big, so they contacted archaeologist Francois Rouzaud from DRAC Midi-Pyrénées. As Rouzaud began to research the cave and its mysterious stalagmite structures, then, the first indications of just how special this discovery was soon began to emerge.
In total, 400 pieces or so of broken stalagmites were arranged around the cave, making up two loose circles. There was a large arrangement, around 22 feet in diameter, and another, smaller circle measuring around six and a half feet across.
Each ring was made up of anything between one and four layers of broken pieces, with more resting lengthwise against the layers as a means of support. Additionally, there were four separate piles of stalagmites, half of them in the interior of the ring, half of them exterior to it.
Throughout the structures were traces of fire, too, with many of the pieces blackened and burned. This, combined with the uniform way in which the pieces had been selected and stacked, convinced experts beyond doubt that the structures were deliberately built by humans. Yet it was just the first of many startling revelations to emerge from Bruniquel Cave.
Rouzaud decided to send a burned bear bone discovered at the site for testing – and when the results arrived, he was flabbergasted. Carbon dating suggested that the bone was 47,600 years old, making the stacked stalagmite pieces far older than any cave art ever discovered.
Incredibly, though, that wasn’t the most impressive thing about the discovery. If the age of the bone did indeed match the date of the site’s construction, it would mean that the stalagmites were broken and stacked not by Homo sapiens, but by their predecessors, the Neanderthals.
Sadly, Rouzaud did not live to see his research completed. He died of a heart attack in 1999, and as a result, work at Bruniquel Cave was brought to a halt. Things didn’t then pick up again until more than a decade later, when paleoclimatologist Dr. Sophie Verheyden from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences found herself on vacation in the region.
Having seen a display about the stalagmite structures in a local castle, Verheyden knew that she had to take a closer look. As a result, she enlisted the help of another stalagmite expert, Dominique Genty, and archaeologist Jacques Jaubert, among others. Together, they began their own research at the site in 2013.
Verheyden knew that scientific techniques had moved on since Rouzaud made his startling discovery. Whereas he had used carbon dating to roughly work out the age of a piece of bone, moreover, Verheyden’s team thought they might get more accurate results by studying the stalagmites. To do this, then, they extracted samples from the stalagmite stumps and pieces, measuring the uranium content present in the rock before and after the break. This allowed the team to gain an accurate idea of when the structures were built.
Ultimately, the researchers concluded that the site was an amazing 176,500 years old – and without a doubt the work of Neanderthals. “When I announced the age to Jacques,” Verheyden told The Atlantic in May 2016, “he asked me to repeat it because it was so incredible.”
Previously, Neanderthals were thought to have been a savage and unsophisticated species that died out to make way for the superior Homo sapiens. However, the discovery of these structures – thought to have served a ritualistic purpose – has forced researchers to accept that they may have been far more advanced than anyone suspected.
“Their presence away from the entrance of the cave indicates that humans from this period had already mastered the underground environment, which can be considered a major step in human modernity,” Jaubert told The Telegraph in May 2016. “We believe that we are providing evidence of the capacity of Neanderthals to enter a hostile, underground environment, using fire to light the way, to do things that go beyond mere survival.”
The discovery is part of an ongoing scientific movement hoping to change people’s perception of Neanderthals as a brutish, inferior species. Modern researchers are revealing instead that – perhaps surprisingly – they were creative, intuitive and capable of far more than they have received credit for.