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Observations placeholder

Seven Ages of Man - 06 Dwarfs/The Neanderthals - On caves as cathedrals



Type of Spiritual Experience


From both the archaeological and mythical record, it appears that the cave played a significant role in Neanderthal's life

The Singing Neanderthals – Dr Steven Mithen

  • Kebara cave - One skeleton is of particular significance, the Kebara 1 specimen, dating to around 63,000 years ago and excavated in 1983 from Kebara cave in Israel….
  • Amud cave - The biggest known brain capacity belongs to a Neanderthal from Amud cave – 1,750 cubic centimetres……..The cave is found along a dry valley amid quite spectacular scenery.  I knew we were getting near when the tall natural pillar of stone at its entrance came into view
  • Combe Grenal - The cave of Combe Grenal, located in the Dordogne region of France was used as a Neanderthal occupation site between 115,000 and 50,000 years ago……
  • Other French caves - Paul Mellars, a Cambridge archaeologist with a particularly detailed and extensive knowledge of Neanderthal archaeology, has remarked upon this pattern [of use] in relation to several caves in France, in particular the Grotte Vaufrey in the Dordogne, the Grotte du Lazaret close to Nice, and les Canalettes in the Languedoc region……..
  • Bruniquel cave - in southern France has a 5 metre by 4 metre quadrilateral structure constructed from pieces of stalactite and stalagmite several hundred metres in from the cave entrance.  The Neanderthals must have used lighted torches or fires in order to build and make use of this structure, for it would otherwise have been in total darkness being so far from the cave entrance.  ..My guess is that it was the scene of singing and dancing.  The surrounding cave walls are interesting because there are no traces of any painting, engravings or marks of any kind, even though preservation conditions are ideal…..
    One need not have been to Bruniquel cave, or any cave once occupied by Neanderthals, in order to appreciate that their singing and dancing would have echoed and reverberated around the walls. I suspect that Neanderthals would have exploited this property of caves, along with the shadows thrown up against the cave walls by the firelight, to make their singing and dancing more dramatic. They may also have flicked stalagmites with their fingernails to make  high-pitched ringing sound, banged bones and chimed flint blades together, blown through horns and shells, and drummed upon mammoth skulls. None of this would have left an archaeological trace indicative of music-making.
    Indeed, this is true for many of the musical instruments manufactured by modern hunter-gatherers, which mainly use either skins and vegetable materials that rapidly decay, or minimally modified bones and shells that are unlikely to be interpreted as musical instruments if found on an archaeological site.

A description of the experience

Grimm's Deutsche Sagen:   Source Thomas Keightley

Many of these Dwarfs were good natured and on particular occasions, were obliging to the inhabitants, who used, for instance, in case of a wedding or christening to borrow various articles for the table out of the caves of the Dwarfs.


Paul Devereux – Sacred Places

Not only habitation and shelter, caves were also the first cathedrals.  It is not difficult to understand their numinous power – can feel it now whenever we enter one.  This is because the cave is archetypal … the entrance to the underworld, the riminal place where light ends and eternal darkness begins.  The cave is a metaphor, it is the womb of the Earth, yet the gateway to the realm of the dead; it is the threshold between the warmth and sounds of day and the chill silence of cavernous night; it is the boundary between the living world of humanity and the mysterious dark realms of the shades and of the shaman … the place of visions and dreams and of spectral tortured images glimpsed in the phantasmagoric form of stalagmites and stalagtites.

The source of the experience

The Ancestors

Concepts, symbols and science items



Activities and commonsteps