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Did modern humans snaffle Neanderthal technology?

Four views of the most complete lissoir found during excavations at the Neandertal site of Abri Peyrony. Photo: © Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects

Four views of the most complete lissoir found during excavations at the Neandertal site of Abri Peyrony. © Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects

Bone tools found in deposits containing typical Neanderthal stone tools and the bones of hunted animals, including horses and bison, have scientists asking whether these extinct humans actually taught some aspects of tool-making to their modern counterparts.

It raises the distinct possibility that Neanderthals gave us a style of tool still used in leather workshops today.

Research suggests Neanderthals made the first specialized bone tools in Europe, casting doubt on the general scientific view that it was modern humans spreading north that helped advance Neanderthal tool-making.

Modern humans replaced Neanderthals in Europe about 40 thousand years ago, but the Neanderthals’ capabilities are still greatly debated.

Some argue that before they were replaced, Neanderthals had cultural capabilities similar to modern humans, while others argue that these similarities only appear once modern humans came into contact with Neanderthals.

The tool in question is known as a lissoir, used to work animal hides to make them softer, tougher, shinier, and more resistant to water.

Neanderthal would have used lissoirs on the hides of the horses, bison, red deer, reindeer and other larger mammals they hunted. The unearthed lissoirs were fashioned from deer ribs. While they could have been fashioned from stone, the Neanderthals made use of flexible bone, which would have done a better job in working the hide.

A reconstruction of how lissoirs, made of deer ribs, could have been used to prepare hides to make them more supple. Photo: © Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects

A reconstruction of how lissoirs, made of deer ribs, could have been used to prepare hides to make them more supple. © Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects

The lissoirs were found at two French sites used by Neanderthals.

“For now, the bone tools from these two sites are one of the better pieces of evidence we have for Neanderthals developing on their own a technology previously associated only with modern humans,” explains Dr Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

He and Dr Michel Lenoir, of the University of Bordeaux, have been excavating the site of Abri Peyrony where three of the bones were found.

“If Neanderthals developed this type of bone tool on their own, it is possible that modern humans then acquired this technology from Neanderthals.

“Modern humans seem to have entered Europe with pointed bone-tools only, and soon after started to make lissoir. This is the first possible evidence for transmission from Neanderthals to our direct ancestors,” says Dr Marie Soressi, of Leiden University, in the Netherland.

She and her team found the first of four bone-tools during her excavation at the classic Neanderthal site of Pech-de-l’Azé I.

However, the scientists cannot eliminate the possibility that these tools instead indicate that modern humans entered Europe and started impacting Neanderthal behavior earlier than scientists can currently demonstrate.

Resolving this problem will require sites in central Europe with better bone preservation.

How widespread this new Neanderthal behavior was is a question that remains.

The first three found were fragments less than a few centimeters long and might not have been recognized without experience working with later period bone tools. It is not something normally looked for in this time period.

“However, when you put these small fragments together and compare them with finds from later sites, the pattern in them is clear,” says McPherron.

“Then, last summer, we found a larger, more complete tool that is unmistakably a lissoir like those we find in later, modern human sites or even in leather workshops today.”

Microwear analysis conducted by Dr. Yolaine Maigrot of the CNRS on of one of the bone tools shows traces compatible with use on soft material like hide.

Modern leather workers still use similar tools today.

“Lissoirs like these are a great tool for working leather, so much so that 50 thousand years after Neanderthals made these, I was able to purchase a new one on the internet from a site selling tools for traditional crafts, Soressi said.

A virtual reconstruction (top) of the most complete lissoir, sections through the bone (middle), and the thickness of the bone color coded (bottom) showing thinning at the tip. (Image courtesy of Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects).

A virtual reconstruction (top) of the most complete lissoir, sections through the bone (middle), and the thickness of the bone color coded (bottom) showing thinning at the tip.  © Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects

“It shows that this tool was so efficient that it had been maintained through time with almost no change. It might be one or perhaps even the only heritage from Neanderthal times that our society is still using today.”

These are not the first Neanderthal bone tools, but up to now their bone tools looked like stone tools and were made with stone knapping percussive techniques.

“Neanderthals sometimes made scrapers, notched tools and even handaxes from bone. They also used bone as hammers to resharpen their stone tools,” says McPherron. “But here we have an example of Neanderthals taking advantage of the pliability and flexibility of bone to shape it in new ways to do things stone could not do.”

The bone tools were found in deposits containing typical Neanderthal stone tools and the bones of hunted animals including horses. At both Abri Peyrony and Pech-de-l’Azé I, there is no evidence of later occupations by modern humans that could have contaminated the underlying levels. Both sites have only evidence of Neanderthals.

To discover the age of the bone tools, DrSahra Talamo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology applied radiocarbon dating to bones found near the bone tools themselves.

At Pech-de-l’Azé I, Dr Zenobia Jacobs of the University of Wollongong in Australia, applied optically stimulated luminescence dating to sediments from the layer with the bone tool. The results place the Pech-de-l’Azé I bone tool to about 50,000 years ago. This is well before the best evidence of modern humans in Western Europe, and it is much older than any other examples of sophisticated bone-tool technologies.

 

Marie Soressi, Shannon P. McPherron, Michel Lenoir, Tamara Dogandžić, Paul Goldberg, Zenobia Jacobs, Yolaine Maigrot, Naomi Martisius, Christopher E. Miller, William Rendu, Michael P. Richards, Matthew M. Skinner, Teresa E. Steele, Sahra Talamo, Jean-Pierre Texier: Neandertals Made the First Specialized Bone Tools in Europe. PNAS, 12. August 2013

 

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