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40,000-year-old cave full of animal skulls might be first known site of human rituals

Moira Ritter 4-5 minutes 1/26/2023
Neanderthals preserved the upper portion of the skulls, saving the appendages, archaeologists said.
Neanderthals preserved the upper portion of the skulls, saving the appendages, archaeologists said. MSF

Click on the Facebook page of someone who hunts, and you might find a picture of them dressed in camo with black face paint streaked under their eyes, grinning while holding up the head of a buck.

New evidence shows that humans’ earliest ancestors might have had a similar idea.

A team of Spanish archaeologists recently unearthed a trove of large animal skulls in a 40,000-year-old cave, according to a Jan. 26 news release from the Community of Madrid. Experts say the findings could be the first evidence of ancient human rituals.

The skulls belonged to large ungulates — mammals with hooves, including horses, bison, deer and elk — and were found in Cueva Des-Cubierta, a known Neanderthal site that was originally discovered in 2009, the community said.

Unlike other, similar discoveries, archaeologists said the remains they found within the cave were not consistent with subsistence activities, but instead appeared to be symbolic.

Evidence at the site indicates that the mammals were killed and consumed outside of the cave, according to a study from the team released Jan. 26 in Nature Human Behavior. The skulls that were recovered all had appendages but were missing their teeth and jaws, leading experts to believe that they were used as hunting trophies.

Two rhinoceros skulls were found in the cave, archaeologists said. Mario Torquemada MAPCM

Some of the smaller bones also showed signs of being cooked or burned on a hearth, the study said.

The evidence at Cueva Des-Cubierta is the first of its kind, indicating that Neanderthals may have had symbolic capacity, which means they held more intellectual capacity than previously known, the community said.

The team also identified more than 1,000 ancient tools, including anvils, hammerstones, cores, flakes and other shaped tools, they said in the study.

The cave is about 55 miles north of Madrid.

Google Translate was used to translate the release from the Community of Madrid.

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Moira Ritter covers real-time news for McClatchy. She is a graduate of Georgetown University where she studied government, journalism and German. Previously, she reported for CNN Business.