Neanderthals created the oldest special bone tools

50, 000 years old discovery disproves previous assumptions

Four views of the most complete lissoir discovered during excavations in the Neanderthal site Abri Peyroni. © Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l'Azé I Projects
Read out

Archaeologists have discovered Europe's oldest specialized bone tools. The surprising thing about it: The about 50, 000-year-old tools for leather processing do not come from modern humans, but from the Neanderthal - to whom this technology had previously been thought. But that could mean that our ancestors even looked away from their supposedly dumber cousin, as the researchers report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The abilities that Neanderthals once possessed are still debated: Some researchers believe that they were already as culturally advanced as the anatomically modern humans of their time. Others assume, however, that these similarities did not occur until after both human species had met and the Neanderthals had taken some of our ancestors. This is supported by the fact that, for example, fine stone blades, jewelry and bone tools are only known from the end of Neanderthal culture - shortly before the Ice Age people were finally displaced by modern man. That was the case some 40, 000 years ago.

Softer leather thanks to bone scraper

As one of the techniques that spread only after the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe, so far was the production and use of specialized bone tools. "Although Neanderthals sometimes made scrapers and even bone hand axes, " explains Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, one of the two heads of the excavations. The findings so far were still very similar to the stone tools and were also made with similar techniques.

Reconstructing how the Lissoirs made from the ribs of red deer were used to make animal skins smoother, glossier and more water resistant. The natural flexibility of the ribs ensures constant pressure on the animal's skin without, however, tearing it. In the lower part of the figure one can see how the downward pressure finally leads to the break, where small fragments similar to the three found arise. Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l Az I Projects

On the other hand, the bone tools made by the modern Stone Age people are different: they had new shapes and made targeted use of the advantages of the lighter and softer bone material. So our ancestors cut off the ends of bones to round scrapers, so-called Lissoirs. With these handy, well-gripped tools, they rubbed on animal hide until the leather became soft, smooth, and water-resistant.

Fund at Neandertaler camp

An international team of researchers led by Shannon McPherron and Marie Soressi of the University of Leiden has now discovered the oldest examples of such bone scrapers in France. The four fragments were found during excavations in Abri Peyrony and Pech-de-l Az I, two Neanderthal camps near the Dordogne in the southwest of France. Both sites contain only legacies of the Neanderthals, there are no indications of a later use by modern humans. display

All four Lissoirs were made from rib bones of deer or reindeer and ground to a scraper at the top. Microscopic examinations revealed typical signs of wear on the tools, suggesting that the Neanderthals were already using these scrapers in the same way that modern humans used them: to soften and soften leather. "Here's an example of how Neanderthals took advantage of the flexibility and flexibility of bones to perform work that they could not do with rocks." says McPherron.

The entrance to the cave of Pech-de-l Az I, where Neanderthals sought protection around 50, 000 years ago. Pech-de-l Az I Project

Neanderthal inventor of the tools?

Dates showed that the bone tool from Pech-de-l Az I is about 50, 000 years old. It is thus older than the earliest evidence of modern humans in Western Europe and much older than other specialized technologies for making bone tools, the researchers report. In her opinion, this could mean that it was not the modern human, but rather the Neanderthals who invented this type of bone tool.

"This is the first indication that there may have been a" cultural "transfer between Neanderthals and our direct ancestors, " says Soressi. Our ancestors could have looked into this technique when they immigrated to Europe. "Then it could be the only Neanderthal heritage our society still uses today, " adds McPherron.

Origin of technology still unclear

However, as the researchers emphasize, they can not completely rule out that modern man could have arrived earlier in Europe than previously known. Then theoretically he could have passed on the technique of Lissoir production to the Neanderthals. However, when our ancestors settled in Europe, they initially brought only sharp bone tools, as the scientists report. Only a little later then they also made Lissoirs.

In order to clarify who operated "industrial espionage" at that time, further sites in Central Europe, which contain better conserved bones, now have to be tapped. This could provide information about how widespread the production of such bone tools really was with the Neanderthals - and whether they themselves invented this technique. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1302730110)

(PNAS, 13.08.2013 - NPO)