Study: Neanderthals Displayed Trophy Antlers, Too

Study: Neanderthals Displayed Trophy Antlers, Too

It’s not clear when the term “man cave” was first coined, but a recent discovery in Spain has pushed the first known example back at least 40,000 years.

Turns out, it’s not a new desire to have a little place of your own to dream about past hunts and plan for the next one. Nor is it a new activity to spend your evenings repairing and preparing your hunting equipment under a display of heads flashing in flickering reflections of light. Actual firelight has been replaced by TV screens and Amazon Firesticks, but this new study suggests that hunters have been displaying their trophies for tens of thousands of years.

euro mounts Image via Javier Trueba.


In a cave already famous for its Neanderthal fossils, archeologists recently found an unusual assemblage of animal skulls in one portion referred to as Level 3. What made this assemblage unusual was the conspicuous lack of jaws or any other bones from the animals’ bodies. This collection appeared to be just skulls of hunted animals, but all of the skulls belonged to individuals and species with large horns or antlers rather than females or young specimens. Many skulls were broken open in the back, but with the front intact as one would see in a traditional European skull mount today. A few had cut marks still present on the fossilized skull indicating they were skinned.

Most evidence found at Neanderthal sites is associated with subsistence activity as animals are prepared for consumption. The heads are usually left in the field because they are heavy and yield little nutritional value that can’t be collected at the kill site. This collection of large-horned and antlered animals, however, seems unrelated to subsistence and more akin to a symbolic reverence for the largest, most mature animals they harvested.

Of the 35 skulls discovered, 28 were either bison or aurochs, five were red deer, and two were rhinoceroses. Aurochs are the giant ancestors of domestic cattle, but during the Pleistocene, they were a formidable and dangerous source of protein. These beasts used their three-foot-long horns to fight off extinction until the last individual died in Poland in 1627.

The bison represented in the cave was the now-extinct steppe bison. At the time it was widespread in Europe before crossing the Bering Land Bridge and populating North America to eventually evolve into the current bison of the American West.

The red deer is the European cousin of our wapiti and has been extremely important to all European hunters, from Neanderthals up to those who participated in last year’s deer season. Of the five specimens found, all were male with intact antlers.

But the steppe rhinoceros would’ve likely been the centerpiece of any Neanderthal man cave. Evidence in France indicates Neanderthals hunted them selectively.

bison skull Image via Javier Trueba.

Cave Uncovered

This remarkable collection sits in the rubble of a cave in central Spain known as Cueva Des Cubierta, which is Spanish for “uncovered cave” because the roof has long since “caved in.” Cueva Des Cubierta was discovered in 2009 when workers excavating another nearby cave expanded their work. The cave zigzags for a length of about 80 yards and is 6 to 12 feet wide. Evidence of fire hearths in the cave allowed Dr. Enrique Baquedano and his colleagues to estimate the date of the site from between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago. In addition to the skull collection, his team found a treasure trove of Neanderthal tools with 1,421 pieces ranging from hammerstones, cores, anvils, as well as flaked and shaped tools.

The evidence in this cave is not consistent with many of the ways animal bones can accumulate to be found later as fossils. The concentration of skulls and lack of other bones from these animals argues against it being a natural sinkhole, carnivore’s den, or seasonal camp where hunted animals were butchered for consumption.

modern human vs. Neanderthal skulls Anatomically modern human versus Neanderthal skull. Image via Dr. Mike Baxter, public Domain Wikimedia commons.

The Neanderthal Connection

Neanderthals are a dead-end offshoot of our direct lineage, but they already occupied vast areas of Asia and Europe for hundreds of thousands of years by the time anatomically modern humans dispersed out of Africa about 75,000 years ago. Modern humans spread across Eurasia during a time when it was occupied by several species of humans. Neanderthals were in contact with our ancestors for at least a few thousand years, but probably much more. Advanced genetic analysis now shows that when we say they were “in contact,” we mean they hooked up in the conjugal sense: sporadic hybridization resulted in modern humans today being about 2% Neanderthal on average.

The more we learn about Neanderthals, the more it seems they weren’t the brutish thugs that cartoonist Gary Larson depicted them to be. Their brains were proportionately about the same size as modern humans. Small bones in the front of the neck (hyoid bones) that support the voice box and fossil hyoid bones from Neanderthals indicate they had the structures to produce a spoken language, which would be needed to coordinate complex hunting strategies that are often abstract in nature.

Neanderthal skeletons found in another cave in Iraqi Kurdistan appeared to be intentionally and carefully buried by friends and family. In one case, researchers reported that Neanderthals were burying their dead with flowers because they found a high concentration of pollen in the graves.

No doubt, Neanderthals were losers in the competition for the most successful humanoid species, but there is ample evidence they had a spiritual, ritualistic, and symbolic culture.

red deer A red deer specimen. Image via Mario Torquemada.

Hunting Culture

There is no disputing that hunting was the cornerstone of Neanderthal culture. Analysis of isotope signatures showed that they were highly carnivorous, with diets that resembled hyenas, lions, and wolves. In the cold northern climates of Eurasia that Neanderthals called home, shorter growing seasons left limited opportunity to supplement their diet with plants, but meat could be stored all winter. There is a growing body of evidence that Neanderthals, in many places, hunted the reindeer migrations in autumn and stockpiled meat. In addition to these coordinated deer hunts where large numbers of animals were killed, they also favored mature males out of proportion to their availability.

As early as 1906, anthropologists noted that a Neanderthal site in France had such an accumulation of ibex, bison, and red deer skulls that they interpreted it as a collection of hunting trophies. Among more modern hunter-gather cultures, the skulls of most animals are left at the kill site. However, there are examples in many cultures of certain animal skulls used in a strongly symbolic way where they are displayed as memories of past hunts, for good luck on future hunts, or simply because they look cool. The display of large mammal skulls resulting from our modern hunts is obviously very much still in practice.

At Cueva Des Cubierta, radiocarbon dating of skulls indicated that the practice of placing these skulls in the cave occurred over a long period of time, suggesting that this was a deeply ingrained cultural phenomenon. Generation after generation carried on the same practice, and no doubt many stories were passed down in oral tradition about the most famous heads and the hunts that produced them.

Our fondness for being surrounded by heads of our quarry is deeply embedded in the strands of our DNA. The current human experience comes at the end of a long and multi-branched road of physical and cultural development. We cannot deny the significant contribution hunting played in our success by fueling our bodies with a high-protein diet and shaping our culture with rich experiences. We are products of the evolutionary development of hunters who also appreciated nice examples of large horns and antlers.

Feature image via Javier Trueba.

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