Engraved stone artifacts can provide important insights into the history of human culture and cognition. However, it can be difficult to determine the action that created an incision: was it an accidental scrape or purposeful engraving? To address this issue, Ana Majkić and colleagues from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France created an interpretive framework that allows researchers to classify the structure and patterns of engraved cortexes, or the soft outer layers of a type of rock called flint, which are found in Middle and Lower Paleolithic sites across Europe and the Middle East.
They tested this methodology with an engraved flint from the cave site of Kiik-Koba in Crimea. The many stone artifacts at the site are associated with Neanderthal remains and date to around 35,000 years ago. Based on microscopic examination of the grooved lines on the flint cortex and application of the new interpretive framework, the researchers concluded that the incisions represent deliberate engravings that would have required fine motor skills and attention to detail. These engravings appear to have been made with symbolic or communicative intent.
If this interpretation is correct, this flake would join a growing list of signs that Neanderthals engaged in symbolic activities, along with evidence of intentional burial, personal ornaments and other decorated objects. This has implications for the question of when and how many times this sort of cultural expression has evolved in human species. The researchers hope to hone their framework further for use with artifacts of varying ages and cultural contexts.
Reference: Majkić A, d’Errico F, Stepanchuk V (2018) Assessing the significance of Palaeolithic engraved cortexes. A case study from the Mousterian site of Kiik-Koba, Crimea. PLoS ONE 13(5): e0195049. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0195049
Image Credit: Majkić et al (2018)