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ancient art

Researchers say ancient bone carving suggests Neanderthals could make art

Inside a German cave, researchers discovered what they say is one of the oldest pieces of art ever found.

It is the toe bone of a prehistoric deer, with lines carved into, the researchers wrote in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. They say the lines were made by Neanderthals, and the bone carbon dates to 51,000 years ago. Study co-author Thomas Terberger, a prehistoric archaeologist, told NBC News this is "clearly not a pendant or something like that. It's clearly a decoration with a kind of symbolic character. ... You might even call it the initial start of art, something which was not done by accident, but with a clear plan in mind."

It has long been thought that Neanderthals were unable to express symbolism through art, NBC News reports, and the researchers said this is evidence to the contrary. The bone was found in the famed "Unicorn Cave" in central Germany, discovered alongside the shoulder blade bones of a deer and the skull of a cave bear. Fossilized bones have been unearthed in the cave for centuries, and it's been established that Neanderthals lived in the cave from at least 130,000 years ago until 47,000 years ago. 

Researchers said they don't know if the lines on the toe bone have any meaning, as the object is "quite unique," archaeologist Dirk Leder said. "We don't see it anywhere in the Paleolithic literature. We were discussing different interpretations. ... The shape could be like a female figurine with the head and the chest part, but then the chevron pattern to some of us looked like three mountains in a row, a landscape view."