Symbols, from flags to traffic signs, have long been one of humanity's most unique inventions. And now, a growing body of evidence suggest that it even extended to our ancestors, the Neanderthals.
Archaeologists have found 27 incised stones that they have been marked intentionally for a greater purpose. A team headed up by Anna Majkic of the University of Bordeaux, France has studied one piece of flint in particular excavated from an archaeological site known as Kiik-Koba in Crimea.
Trying to understand the markings is a challenge. Some of them surely are unintentional, markings made accidentally while killing an animal or some related activity. And "even when it is possible to demonstrate that engravings are ancient and anthropogenically produced, their interpretation is not a straightforward" says Majkic and her team in their paper on the flint stone, published in .
Focusing on the Kiik-Koba stone, Majkic and her team say that not only were the markings intentional, but offer a set of guidelines moving forward in the future.
Looking at the edges of the Kiik-Koba stone, which is approximately 3 centimeters long, or 1.18 inches, and approximately 3,5000 years old, it's clear that the piece of flint was broken off from an earlier piece. The size is also important: It's too tiny to have been useful as a tool or a cutting board.
There's also the chance that it could have been the bored, meaningless drawings of a Neanderthal with some time on their hands with no purpose. Or they could have not been symbolic but rather have a direct purpose, attempting to count something. Again, Majkic and her team reject these ideas.
The etching look deliberate and create a visible contrast "that may have been used to recall an information to the flake user or eventually communicate one when the tool was passed to somebody else," they say in the paper. The etchings also overlap with each other, suggesting that they were not meant to take a census.
The size of the stone suggests that it had limited utility, perhaps to only a few Neanderthals who used it for a specific purpose.
Neanderthals and early hominids were more sophisticated than their reputation suggests. Majick and her team say that"the precision with which engraving was executed indicates very good hand-eye coordination and motor skills employed with effort, attention to detail, and an intent to frame the incised pattern." All of these things line up with intentional use.
Some 35,000 years from now, archaeologists mights look at Facebook likes in the same way.