a person holding a bone with Neanderthal carvings on it

Were Neanderthals making ‘art’ in Europe’s fabled Unicorn Cave?

A chess-sized piece of bone crafted before modern humans are believed to have arrived in the area sparks questions about artistic expression beyond Homo sapiens.

Researchers say this incised bone, carved by Neanderthals more than 50,000 years ago, is evidence that our extinct cousins could create ‘art’ in the modern human sense of the word—or, at the very least, exhibit creativity and symbolic expression.

For centuries, Germany’s Unicorn Cave has been a lure for people seeking secrets from the past. In the Middle Ages, people literally mined the site for mammoth tusks, cave bear teeth, and the remains of other extinct animals. The unfamiliar skeletons were thought to belong to legendary beasts—dragons, perhaps, or unicorns. Powdered and mixed with gold and silver, these mysterious bones were considered cure-alls for everything from impotence to the plague.

More recently, on a warm summer day in 2019, Gabriele Russo sat outside Unicorn Cave, marveling at another mysterious bone in his hand.

About the size of a chess piece, it was carved with 10 deep, slanting lines on one

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