The bone was likely boiled before being carved, and took about an hour and a half to make, Dr. Terberger said. When the bone stands upright, the chevron pattern points to the sky.
Even though Neanderthals were known to have lived in and around the cave, Dr. Terberger initially thought the carving had to have been made by an early Homo sapiens. Such cultural artifacts from Neanderthals are extremely rare, after all, and often contested. But radiocarbon dating showed that the foot was 51,000 years old — meaning it was made several thousands of years before the first early modern humans showed up in the region.
So the carving, as the scientists published this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution, was almost certainly made by Neanderthals. As Silvia Bello, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London who was not involved in the discovery, wrote in the same issue of the journal, the finding is “one of the most complex artistic expressions by Neanderthals thus far known.”
Ever since the first major Neanderthal fossil was found in another German cave in 1856, our hominin cousins have been thought of as thick, dumb brutes. Although more recent discoveries have shown that Neanderthals used sophisticated tools, buried their dead and, of course, mated with Homo sapiens, “we are still somehow a bit imprisoned in our image of the Neanderthals from the 19th century,” Dr. Terberger said.
The new carving is one of only a handful of examples of Neanderthal art, like body ornaments, rock engravings and notched animal bones. Many scientists have raised doubts about whether some of these Neanderthal art pieces were actually tools, and whether they picked up their creative proclivities from interactions with early ancestors from our species.