For years Neanderthals were depicted as thuggish cavemen that scraped an existence on the cold barren plains of ice age Europe.

But a series of discoveries are now revealing Neanderthals in new light, suggesting they were skilled tool makers with adept hand eye coordination.

Now a ‘remarkable’ discovery of a ring-like stone structures in a cave in France suggests Neanderthals worked in teams to build complex structures.

Stone buildings are thought to have only emerged in modern humans with the development of farming around 10,000 years ago.

But the new study, which is published in the journal Nature, suggest that 176,000 years ago, Neanderthals were already constructing stone structures in a cave in south west France.

THE BRUNIQUEL CAVE

In 1992, a cave in south west France was discovered with around 400 structures made from broken stalagmites, about 1100 feet (336 metres) from the cave’s entrance.

Until recently, the structures in the Bruniquel cave had remained unstudied. Now a team of researchers at the University of Bordeaux have dated the structures to 176,000 years ago.

The presence of the mysterious structures so deep in the cave, along with marks caused by fire, shows the Neanderthals must have mastered how to work underground and use their own artificial light.

Archaeologists first discovered the ring of 400 broken pieces of stalagmites about 1,100 feet (336 metres) from the entrance of the Bruniquel cave in 1992.

They formed several rings – one of which was nearly 22 feet wide.

However, they remained unstudied until a team of researchers at the University of Bordeaux decided to look at them.

They have now dated the structures to 176,000 years ago.

They say the structures could have formed part of a refuge or had a symbolic meaning to the Neanderthals who built them.

‘We did not expect a Neanderthal attendance in the deep underground cave, so far from the entrance,’ Professor Jacques Jaubert, lead author of the study, told MailOnline.

He said the structures suggest the Neanderthals must have moved up to 2.5 tons (2.3 tonnes) of material to build them.

This, he said, would have required a remarkable amount of cooperation as the group worked together with a preconceived plan with leaders, advisers and manufacturers.

HOW WERE THE STRUCTURES BUILT

The Neanderthals must have moved 400 pieces, weighing up to 2.5 tons (2.3 tonnes).

It would have required the group to work together with a preconceived plan with leaders, advisers and manufacturers.

‘All this indicates a structured society,’ lead author Professor Jacques Jaubert told MailOnline.

Previous examples of human habitation reach 98 or 130 feet (30 or 40 metres) into the dark zones of caves from sites of this or even greater age in Africa.

‘But the Bruniquel occupation is around ten times deeper into the cave, and shows constructions as complex as some made by modern humans only 20 or 30,000 years ago,’ Professor Stringer said. This means they must have had some form of artificial light.

He said: ‘All this indicates a structured society – having a project, then to find the raw material, then tear [the] stalagmites. Then fragmenting, knapping [them] into regular elements.’

The researchers also found the remains of marks left by fire, which suggests the Neanderthals used artificial light to help them work so far underground.

The findings ‘would be significant for any period of time, but at around 175,000 years, these must have been made by early Neanderthals, the only known human inhabitants of Europe at this time,’ Professor Chris Stringer, anthropologist at the Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the research, told MailOnline.

Neanderthals lived in Eurasia from around 400,000 to 40,000 years ago, at which point anatomically modern humans settled in.

Previous examples of human habitation reach 98 or 130 feet (30 or 40 metres) into the dark zones of caves from sites of this or even greater age in Africa.

‘But the Bruniquel occupation is around ten times deeper into the cave, and shows constructions as complex as some made by modern humans only 20 or 30,000 years ago,’ Professor Stringer said.

‘This discovery provides clear evidence that Neanderthals had fully human capabilities in the planning and the construction of ‘stone’ structures, and that some of them penetrated deep into caves where artificial lighting would have been essential.’.

‘If the dates are correct then this is a hugely exciting development in our understanding of the lives of the Neanderthals,’ Dr Simon Underdown, senior lecturer in Biological Anthropology from Oxford Brookes University told MailOnline.

‘The considerable time and effort needed to build such a structure clearly indicates a shared plan and extensive cooperation.’

The complex Bruniquel structures have been dated to within a long cold glacial stage, and at that time the cave might have provided a temporary refuge from the cold.

‘It’s finally time to put away the old image of the Neanderthals as stupid and embrace them as a fully human species,’ added Dr Underdown.

But why the Neanderthals built the structures remains a mystery.

‘The purpose of the structures and concentrated combustion zones which are mostly on the broken stalagmites rather than on the ground remain enigmatic, but they demonstrate that some Neanderthals, at least, were as much ‘at home’ deep within the cave as at its entrance’ Professor Stringer said.

The researchers hope to excavate the site to find remains of the humans that may have constructed the structures.

‘The project this year [is] to make a test-pit inside the great structure, to survey the archaeological soil and, if it’s possible, to find some remains’ Professor Jaubert said.

If there is still-buried debris from occupation, it would help to determine whether this was a functional refuge or shelter, perhaps roofed using wood and skins, or something which had more symbolic or ritual significance.

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