Neandertals made the first specialized bone tools in Europe

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Modern humans replaced Neandertals in Europe about 40 thousand years ago, but the Neandertals’ capabilities are still greatly debated. Some argue that before they were replaced, Neandertals had cultural capabilities similar to modern humans, while others argue that these similarities only appear once modern humans came into contact with Neandertals.

“For now the bone tools from these two sites are one of the better pieces of evidence we have for Neandertals 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 Neandertals developed this type of bone tool on their own, it is possible that modern humans then acquired this technology from Neandertals. 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 Neandertals to our direct ancestors,” says Dr. Soressi of Leiden University, Netherland. She and her team found the first of four bone-tools during her excavation at the classic Neandertal site of Pech-de-l’Azé I.

However, we cannot eliminate the possibility that these tools instead indicate that modern humans entered Europe and started impacting Neandertal behavior earlier than we can currently demonstrate. Resolving this problem will require sites in central Europe with better bone preservation.

How widespread this new Neandertal 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”, comments Dr. 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 (see Figure 4 of main text and links in press images captions). “Lissoirs like these are a great tool for working leather, so much so that 50 thousand years after Neandertals made these, I was able to purchase a new one on the Internet from a site selling tools for traditional crafts,” says Dr. Soressi. “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 Neandertal times that our society is still using today.”

These are not the first Neandertal bone tools, but up to now their bone tools looked like stone tools and were made with stone knapping percussive techniques. “Neandertals sometimes made scrapers, notched tools and even handaxes from bone. They also used bone as hammers to resharpen their stone tools,” says Dr. McPherron. “But here we have an example of Neandertals taking advantage of the pliability and flexibility of bone to shape it in new ways to do things stone could not do.”


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The bone tools were found in deposits containing typical Neandertal stone tools and the bones of hunted animals including horses, reindeer, red deer and bison. 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 Neandertals.

To know the age of the bone tools, Dr. Sahra 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 applied optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating to sediments from the layer with the bone tool. The results place the Pech-de-l’Azé I bone tool to approximately 50 thousand 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.

Header Image : Credit MPIEA

Contributing Source : Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

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