(CNN)A tiny piece of bone that once belonged to a giant Ice Age deer is changing how we think about Neanderthals.
Found in Einhornhöhle cave in northern Germany, the decorated deer phalanx, or toe bone, features an engraved geometric pattern and has been dated, using several techniques, to at least 51,000 years old.
It refreshes the debate over to what extent Neanderthals, the heavily built Stone Age hominins that disappeared about 40,000 years ago, were capable of artistic expression and symbolic thought and whether they developed these skills themselves or through interactions with early modern humans, who first arrived in Europe around this time.
"The phalanx from Einhornhöhle with its stacked offset chevrons represents one of the most complex cultural expressions in Neanderthals known so far," according to a study that published Monday in the journal Nature.
The team of German researchers said the small bone appears to be of no practical use, and the chevron design, with its three uniform parallel lines appears to be intentionally created -- perhaps as a personal ornament.
"The choice of material, its preparation before carving and the skilful technique used for the engraving are all indicative of sophisticated expertise and great ability in bone working," said Silvia M. Bello, a researcher at the Centre for Human Evolution Research, Department of Earth Sciences, at the Natural History Museum in London, in a commentary that accompanied the paper. She wasn't involved in the research.
"The presence of incisions artistically arranged in a chevron pattern on the bone of a giant deer, supports the symbolic meaning of this find and raises new questions about how complex Neanderthal behaviour might have been."
Boiled before decorated
The bone was from a giant deer, an animal that researchers described as "very impressive," but also one that would have been very rare north of the Alps at the time. Choosing the giant deer bone as the raw material emphasizes the special character of the object and supported that it had a symbolic meaning, they said.