Keeping track of time is kind of a big deal, particularly when your life depends on the growth of plants and movement of animals. So it should come as no surprise that some of the most impressive ancient structures might be glorified calendars. But whilst these might be the fanciest calendars, they likely weren’t the first. In fact, those might have been made by Neanderthals. A raven bone has been found in the Crimea with curious, tally-like marks.
Could this 43,000-year-old bird bone actually mark (pun totally intended) the first step towards a calendar and perhaps a written language? Or are we reading too much (pun also intended) into one Neanderthal’s love of parallel lines?
Don’t be Raven
The bone in question comes from a raven that lived near Zaskalnaya rock shelter in the Crimea around 43,000 years ago. Unfortunately for this raven, the site was also occupied by Neanderthals who promptly killed it. Which isn’t that unusual. Neanderthals hunted birds fairly often.
What is unusual is what happened next. A Neanderthal (or Neanderthals) promptly made a series of parallel lines on it. Could this be some way of keeping track of the time? Well, perhaps. But that’s assuming the marks are deliberate. Ravens don’t have that much meat on them, so its not impossible the bone could be damaged during butchery. This interpretation is encouraged by the fact that there is a margin of error with these marks. They aren’t perfect.
But of course, nobody is. So some researchers wondered whether this could just be the natural error that creeps into an engraving as you try and make some marks. Or is there so much error their parallel nature is coincidental and the Neanderthals were trying to do something else with the bone.
To test this, they got themselves some volunteers and a bunch of turkey bones. They all set out to try and engrave the bones with parallel lines. The degree of mistakes they made was carefully quantified. With this information, they could check the actual raven bone to see if the error was a natural margin of error or not. And as the fact that my post doesn’t end here should give away, they found that this error was within the range of accident.
In other words, the Neanderthals were deliberately scratching parallel marks onto this raven bone. But why? The repeating nature of the marks almost looks like a tally. Could they be keeping track of something, like time?
Another stone age calendar
Ultimatley though, we can’t really identify what these marks are trying to say. They could be anything from a love letter, to a calendar, to a cool pattern some Neanderthal liked. But is there any precedent for some of these options? Well, this bird bone isn’t the first artefact with a regular series of marks. And as such, it also isn’t the first object someone has labelled a calendar.
Across the Palaeolithic, there are perhaps a dozen artefacts with repeating marks organised in such a way that some people argue they’re a calendar. Perhaps the most notable example is the La Marche antler, which is both pretty impressive and fairly typical of these early calendars. It’s also been argued over almost non-stop since it’s discovery.
Essentially, it consists of a series of groups of marks; the majority of which appear to be consistent with lunar months. These marks are also different shapes, indicating to some they weren’t made at the same time with the same tool. Instead, they represent a record of time. The La Marche antler is thought to cover around 7 months, with other objects having similar evidence albeit covering shorter periods of time.
Alas, upon closer inspection this evidence starts to break down. The differences in marks that suggest they were made over a long period? Could actually be produced by slight changes in the orientation of how the tool was held. Or by shifting the antler itself slightly. Additionally, when you look at antler under a microscope, even more, marks begin to appear and the whole thing begins to align a lot less with a lunar calendar.
But perhaps the most damning piece of evidence is that dry antler can snap engraving points easily. Yet there are no such mistakes stemming from snaps. The antler must have been wet when it was made. So it was all done shortly after someone got ahold of the antler.
The flaws with the evidence behind the La Marche antler also plague many of the other claimed calendars from this period. Without this clear historical precedent, there’s little to indicate that the Neanderthal bone was a calendar. In fact, the number of marks doesn’t even really align with any observational way of keeping time.
However, what these marks are are deliberate. A neanderthal manufactured a series fo parallel lines for no practical reason. Many other cases of Neanderthal art have alternate explanations. But not this one. No ifs, no buts, it’s clear proof the Neanderthals had an arty side.
d’Errico, F., 1995. A new model and its implications for the origin of writing: the La Marche antler revisited. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 5(02), pp.163-206.
d’Errico, F., Henshilwood, C., Lawson, G., Vanhaeren, M., Tillier, A.M., Soressi, M., Bresson, F., Maureille, B., Nowell, A., Lakarra, J. and Backwell, L., 2003. Archaeological evidence for the emergence of language, symbolism, and music–an alternative multidisciplinary perspective. Journal of World Prehistory, 17(1), pp.1-70.
Majkić, A., Evans, S., Stepanchuk, V., Tsvelykh, A. and d’Errico, F., 2017. A decorated raven bone from the Zaskalnaya VI (Kolosovskaya) Neanderthal site, Crimea. PloS one, 12(3), p.e0173435.