Cave rings created by Neanderthals 176,000 years ago suggest these ancient cousins of modern humans may have been more advanced than previously believed. The six features, built into caves in southwestern France, were constructed from broken stalagmites, which once rose from the floor of the natural enclosure.

The Bruniquel cave was once home to a group of our closest extinct relatives. The rings, located 1,100 feet inside the cave, represent some of the oldest-known construction in the world. Construction of the site would have required Neanderthals to move more than two tons of rock, a hefty feat.

"This is the work of a group of at least three to four people, and possibly more. All this indicates a structured society," Jacques Jaubert of the University of Bordeaux said.

Researchers are questioning why these rings were created, and how Neanderthals made use of the structures.

Two rings found in the cave measure 22 by 15 feet, and each of the structures shows signs of having been subjected to flame. However, the rings were unlikely to have been an area for cooking or socializing, as it is so far removed from the cave entrance. Other stone structures built by Neanderthals have been seen before. However, the Bruniquel discovery is far more complex than anything seen in the past, and is also unique in its location within the cave. The age of the rings was determined through radio-carbon dating.

Stalagmites are formed when mineral-rich water falls from the ceiling of a cave onto the floor, slowly building up deposits of stone.

Neanderthals once thrived in the area, but they went extinct roughly 40,000 years ago, as modern humans flooded into Europe over 200,000 years. They were once commonly portrayed as dim-witted, clumsy and uncivilized. However, modern research reveals the species possessed a spoken language, carried out complex hunting strategies and buried their dead. The technology and knowledge was on par with contemporary Homo sapiens, yet little is known of their ancient culture. This new find reveals, for the first time, that Neanderthals had already, at this point in time, mastered living deep underground.

Construction of the rings would have required workers and leaders to manufacture the raw material and form the structure. Light would have also been needed so deep within the cave, a resource likely produced by burning marrow within bones.

Discovery of the Bruniquel Cave rings and analysis of their structure was profiled in the journal Nature.

Photo: Paul Hudson | Flickr

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