The Bruniquel cave is located near the Pyrenees Mountains in southwest France. During the Pleistocene era, the entrance to this cave had been naturally sealed off by an ancient landslide thus leaving it undisturbed for tens of thousands of years. So in February 1990, when young Bruno Kowalsczewski dug a thirty meter long entrance passage through the rubble, the thinnest members of the local caving club were asked to squeeze through in order to explore the interiors. What they discovered inside was nothing short of extraordinary.

Some 336 meters into the Bruniquel cave, the cavers came across a chamber containing evidence of stalagmites that had been deliberately broken and arranged into rings of 4 and 7 meters respectively. In a corner were found piles of burnt bones. Sensing that these could hardly be the work of bears or other primates, the local cavers brought in archaeologist Francois Rouzaud. Rouzaud, who then used carbon dating to study the remains of the bones, soon estimated the age of the specimens at 47, 600 years thus assigning the stalagmite rings to a period much older than any known cave paintings. This could mean only one thing – those responsible for these formations were none other than Neanderthals, the only humans in existence in the region at that period of time.

Although Rouzaud did begin further explorations of the site, a fatal heart attack faced by him in April 1999 while navigating through a different cave left this project largely neglected. That was until Sophie Verheyden, a scientist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, decided to go on a holiday in the region in 2013.

Having previously heard of the discoveries at the Bruniquel Cave, Verheyden decided to visit the site for herself. Aware that carbon-dating could only be accurate for samples younger than 50,000 years, Verheyden had previously found Rouzaud’s figures to be suspect. Thus, seeking a better estimation, she now assembled an archaeological team comprising of archaeologist Jacques Jaubert and fellow stalagmite expert Dominique Genty to undertake an exploration of the cave. Verheyden’s team soon discovered a transition between the two layers of stalagmites within the cave chamber. While on one side lay the old minerals that had been a part of the original stalagmites, on the other side were formations of newer layers that had developed after the fragments had been broken off by previous users. A measurement of uranium levels on either side of the divide further revealed that the fragments of stalagmites that had been deliberately broken off could be dated back to approximately 176, 500 years ago. The Atlantic quotes Verheyden’s surprise at the discovery – “When I announced the age to Jacques, he asked me to repeat it because it was so incredible…” Prior to these findings at the Bruniquel Cave, the earliest human constructions had been dated at just 20, 000 years old. If previously Rouzaud’s estimations had thrown shade at the likeliness of these formations being the work of Homo Sapiens, Verheyden and Jaubert’s discoveries now definitely consolidated it as a fact. These must have been the work of Neanderthals; scientific studies allowed for no other plausible possibility.

The nature of the chamber within the cave, with its rings and mounds, seems to suggest that it had been some sort of a ritual ground, more than a space for inhabitance. Verheyden is of the opinion that the chamber had been built, not by a lone artisan, but an entire team of skilled workers. The ability to break and arrange stalagmite fragments into precise formations and even make use of fire, as evidenced by red and black streaks on some of these fragments that are not found elsewhere in the cave, testifies to a certain level of sophistication in the Neanderthals that evolutionary science had previously been unaware of. According to observations by Verheyden and her team, “The Neanderthal group responsible for these constructions had a level of social organization that was more complex than previously thought…”

Since these discoveries, now treated as part of the Neanderthal’s ongoing rehabilitation, scientists have been trying to understand the reasons for the extinction of the group as a whole. According to Verheyden the discovery of these structures, deep inside a cave, raise some very puzzling questions about the complex social habits of the Neanderthals. In fact, Verheyden intends to get to the bottom of this by cutting through the calcite floor of the cave that, she says, maybe concealing other specimens hinting at the chamber’s purpose.


Sayantani Jana

Sayantani Jana

Sayantani Jana received M.A. in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University and is currently preparing for further research. Poet and writer, her areas of research interest are literatures of World Wars and Holocaust.