Animal skulls found in a Spanish cave may reveal Neanderthal rituals

Researchers found an unusual collection of bison, wild bull, deer and rhinoceros craniums near Madrid, and believe they likely served ceremonial purposes

Cueva valle del Lozoya craneos
Researchers analyzing skulls found at archeological sites in Pinilla del Valle, Madrid.MEH
Nuño Domínguez

Juan Luis Arsuaga, the co-director of Spain’s Atapuerca archaeological site, was recently involved in a discovery that, he says, entails using a little imagination and keeping an open mind. After that, people can draw their own conclusions.

The story begins as follows: about 70,000 years ago, in a cave in the Lozoya valley, north of Madrid, Spain, Neanderthals deposited the skulls and horns of huge animals – bison, wild bulls, deer, rhinoceroses. They removed the animals’ brains, ate them carefully to avoid damaging the horns, and then took the remains to the cave, lit a small fire and covered them with stone slabs. Up to 35 skulls were found two meters deep in the ground, which means that this was a ritual that went on for “years, decades, centuries, even millennia.” According to Arsuaga, this site is the only place in the world where something like this has been found.

In Arsuaga’s opinion, this finding represents one of the strongest pieces of evidence yet that Neanderthals had complex minds that could manage symbols and perform “ceremonies” revolving around the skulls of fearsome animals. “We don’t know what happened there,” the paleoanthropologist acknowledges, “but I can imagine the group of Neanderthals bringing heavy skulls from the valley floor to the cave, preparing them, lighting them up, covering them, and leaving. Wow!”

Ritual neandertal
An illustration depicting a hypothetical Neanderthal ritual, provided by the Museum of Human Evolution. Albert Alvarez Marsal

Neanderthals were the true human species of Europe, where they lived starting 400,000 years ago. In evolutionary terms, they are also the closest hominids to our species, Homo sapiens, which originated in Africa. The two species met in Eurasia, and they had sex and children together for thousands of years, which left a hint of Neanderthal DNA in all present-day people outside Africa. For unknown reasons, Neanderthals went extinct about 40,000 years ago and Homo sapiens became the last human species on Earth. In recent years, a growing number of discoveries has reinforced the idea that Neanderthals were capable of behavior as human as our own.

These skulls were found in the Des-Cubierta cave, an excavation area that is part of the larger Neanderthal archeological sites in Pinilla del Valle, located about an hour and a half away from Madrid. A study discussing the findings was published in the academic journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Hunting or religion?

In the article, a large team of paleoanthropologists from several countries – headed by Arsuaga; Enrique Baquedano, the director of Madrid’s Archaeological and Paleontological Museum and Alfredo Pérez-González, a researcher at Complutense University of Madrid – describe two possible interpretations of the discovery: it is either a collection of hunting trophies or a “ceremonial” site. It may be “some expression of the symbolic relationship between Neanderthals and the natural world, or some kind of initiatory rite or propitiatory magic,” the authors explain in the article.

The researchers base their hypothesis on the fact that they have not found any animal bones other than skulls with preserved horns. There are no indications that Neanderthals camped there or did any other activities that were typical of the time, such as lighting large fires for cooking (there are only traces of very small fires in the cave), carving large stone tools or tanning skins. Just 20 meters (about 66 feet) from the Des-cubierta cave, there is another site that bears evidence of all those things; the site is about 50,000 years old. According to the study’s authors, the skulls are not a casual collection of remains but rather strong evidence that Neanderthals created symbols and places of worship, just as humans do today.

Digging at the Des-Cubierta cave in Pinilla del Valle.
Digging at the Des-Cubierta cave in Pinilla del Valle.Comunidad de Madrid

The finding offers further proof that the Neanderthal mind was not as primitive as archaeologists thought decades ago. Much of the evidence supporting this hypothesis has been found in Spain. For instance, perforated shells that Neanderthals made into necklace beads were found in Los Aviones Cave in Murcia, and the remains of pendants made with eagle talons were discovered in the Foradada cave, in Calafell (Tarragona).

Recent findings also call into question whether Homo sapiens were the only ones who could create pictorial symbols. In La Pasiega cave, in the northern region of Cantabria, a staircase has been found that Neanderthals could have painted some 64,000 years ago, although the date is still being debated. In 2014, researchers found a geometric engraving from 39,000 years ago drilled into a wall in Gibraltar’s Gorham Cave. The real question is whether Neanderthals learned to paint and create symbols because Homo sapiens taught them or whether they developed the ability to do so on their own.

In 2021, a group of paleoanthropologists in Germany found a bone with a chevron-shaped symbol that was made by Neanderthals 51,000 years ago, before Homo sapiens had arrived in the area. Nevertheless, Neanderthal paintings and symbols are a far cry from the apogee of Paleolithic sapiens’ art, like the famous bison of Altamira cave in Cantabria, or the amazing felines of France’s Chauvet cave.

“They were symbolic”

Of the discovery in the Lozoya valley, Arsuaga emphasizes that “what we found here is stronger [evidence] than the paintings, which don’t go beyond symbols and stripes.” These discoveries “confirm that Neanderthals were symbolic, but at the same time they were not like us; after all, one can be human in many [different] ways.”

Since the beginning of last century, researchers have debated the possibility that Neanderthals followed a skull cult. That idea was based on finding the skulls of cave bears and other animals that could have been collected and buried for symbolic reasons, although that hypothesis is still disputed. In the period after the Neanderthals went extinct, there are some examples of Homo sapiens using the skulls of bison, rhinoceroses and other animals, perhaps as an offering to the dead.

Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, a prehistory scholar at Complutense University of Madrid and a researcher at Atapuerca, offers an independent opinion of the study. “It is a very interesting finding, and the scientific community has been anticipating its publication for a while…The authors’ interpretation is very bold and simultaneously controversial,” he says.

“The hunting trophy [hypothesis] goes a step further… it’s plausible, but not everyone will like it. We don’t know of any hunting trophies among modern humans from the Upper Paleolithic [between 50,000 years ago and 12,000 years ago]. It is a modern tradition; [it’s] associated with hunting for sport and European colonialism in the 19th century,” he explains. “The explanation of ceremonial or magical significance seems more coherent to me. It is very possible that Neanderthals had something similar to shamanism. The Des-Cubierta case raises new questions and forces us to look closely at other Middle Paleolithic sites, where other collections of skulls may have gone unnoticed,” Rodríguez-Hidalgo adds.

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