New finds demonstrate: Neandertals were the first in Europe to make standardized and specialized bone tools – which are still in use today.
Two research teams from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands have jointly reported the discovery of Neandertal bone tools coming from their excavations at two neighboring Paleolithic sites in southwest France (Abri Peyrony and Pech-de-l’Azé). The tools are unlike any others previously found in Neandertal sites, but they are similar to a tool type well known from later modern human sites and still in use today by high-end leather workers. This tool, called a lissoir or smoother, is shaped from deer ribs and has a polished tip that, when pushed against a hide, creates softer, burnished and more water resistant leather. The bone tool is still used today by leather workers some 50 thousand years after the Neandertals and the first anatomically modern humans in Europe.
The fragment she found was from a French archaeological site, and it turned out to be a part of an early, specialized bone tool used by a Neanderthal before the first modern humans appeared in Europe.
“At the time, I had no idea about the impact of my discovery,” said Martisius.
A decade of excavation by two international teams provided Martisius with her opportunity. Their findings, and hers, have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Previously these types of bone tools have only been associated with modern humans,” said Teresa E. Steele, associate professor of anthropology at UC Davis, who also served as adviser to Martisius at UC Davis and at archaeological excavations in France.
“However, our identification of these pieces in secure Neanderthal contexts leaves open the possibility that we have found, for the first time, evidence that Neanderthals may have influenced the technology of modern humans,” she said.
The tools were made about 50,000 years ago by Neanderthals to smooth tough animal hides. Earlier researchers had theorized that such tools were only made by the modern humans that came after Neanderthals. Leatherworkers today still use similar tools to smooth and refine leather into high-end purses and jackets.
These particular tools were found in deposits of stone tools typical of Neanderthal settlements and the bones of hunted animals including reindeer, red deer and bison. Of the four pieces Martisius identified, three were from the site of Abri Peyrony, France. The researchers at that site sent the animal bones to Steele’s lab at UC Davis where Martisius studied the material.
Martisius, now in her second year of doctoral studies at UC Davis, will continue her research on these bone tools where she will be conducting experimental studies to manufacture and use new, similar animal bone tools for comparison.
The Neanderthal tools will be examined using sophisticated imaging techniques to compare them with the ones first made by the first modern humans in Europe and the ones Martisius will manufacture at UC Davis. She also plans to look at animal bones from nearby sites to see if she can identify additional pieces made by Neanderthals.
The archaeological sites in France where these tools were discovered have been explored for over 100 years, but modern archaeological techniques enabled researchers to recognize these smaller artifacts now identified as pieces of once-sophisticated tools, Steele said.
“For now the bone tools from these two sites (Abri Peyrony and Pech-de-l’Azé) (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 Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He and 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 lissoirs. This is the first possible evidence for transmission from Neandertals to our direct ancestors,” says Marie Soressi of Leiden University in The Netherlands. With William Rendu of the CNRS, Soressi and her team found the first of four bone tools during their 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 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 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 Neandertals made these, I was able to purchase a new one on the Internet from a site selling tools for traditional crafts,” says 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 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.”
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, 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, 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.
Shannon P. McPherron is the senior archaeologist in the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He excavates in Ethiopia, Morocco and southwest France, and started the Abri Peyrony project along with Dr. Michel Lenoir of the CNRS in 2009. The goal of his work in southwest France is to better understand Neandertal adaptations just prior to the arrival of modern humans. In Africa his research is focused on the archaeology of anatomically modern humans contemporary with European Neandertals and on the earliest evidence for stone tool use.
Marie Soressi is assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Through on-going or recent multidisciplinary and international excavations that she is leading, she focuses on better understanding the demise of Neandertals and the expansion of anatomically modern human populations. She excavates in France, and has also worked in South-Africa. She is a research associate to the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and recently acted as project leader for the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeology (INRAP).
Excavation permits and funding were provided by the Musée National de Préhistoire des Eyzies, the Service Régional de l’Archéologie d’Aquitaine, the Service Départemental de l’Archéologie de la Dordogne, the Commission inter-régionale de la Recherche Archéologique d’Aquitaine, the Conseil Général de Dordogne, the Australian Research Council (DP1092438) and the Max Planck Society.
The article, “Neandertals made the first specialized bone tools in Europe,” is available online.
Neandertals made the first specialized bone tools in Europe
PNAS August 27, 2013 vol. 110 no. 35 14186-14190
Marie Soressia; Shannon P. McPherronc; Michel Lenoire; Tamara Dogandžićc; Paul Goldbergf; Zenobia Jacobsh; Yolaine Maigroti; Naomi L. Martisius; Christopher E. Millerk; William Rendul; Michael Richards; Matthew M. Skinnerc; Teresa E. Steelec; Sahra Talamoc & Jean-Pierre Texier.
Modern humans replaced Neandertals ∼40,000 y ago. Close to the time of replacement, Neandertals show behaviors similar to those of the modern humans arriving into Europe, including the use of specialized bone tools, body ornaments, and small blades. It is highly debated whether these modern behaviors developed before or as a result of contact with modern humans. Here we report the identification of a type of specialized bone tool, lissoir, previously only associated with modern humans. The microwear preserved on one of these lissoir is consistent with the use of lissoir in modern times to obtain supple, lustrous, and more impermeable hides. These tools are from a Neandertal context proceeding the replacement period and are the oldest specialized bone tools in Europe. As such, they are either a demonstration of independent invention by Neandertals or an indication that modern humans started influencing European Neandertals much earlier than previously believed. Because these finds clearly predate the oldest known age for the use of similar objects in Europe by anatomically modern humans, they could also be evidence for cultural diffusion from Neandertals to modern humans.
Specialized bone technology first appears in Africa and is widespread in Europe after the arrival of modern humans with the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. Modern humans shaped bone by grinding and polishing to produce standardized or so-called formal tools that were used for specific functions. Examples of Neandertal bone tools do exist; however, most of these were made through percussion to mimic existing stone tools, such as handaxes, scrapers, and denticulates. Standardized bone tools in forms distinct from stone tools and shaped by grinding and polishing occur in the Châtelperronian and Uluzzian, but (i) whether Neandertals made these assemblage types is debated and, furthermore, (ii) their late date means that Neandertals could have been influenced by modern humans already in Europe. Examples with earlier dates are disputed. For example, the site of Saltzgitter-Lebenstedt yielded several mammoth ribs modified by percussion and then shaped by grinding. However, these ribs lack standardization, they do not match known bone-tool types, their intended use is unclear, and they are not repeated at other Neandertal sites. Similarly, the site of Grosse Grotte yielded a mammoth rib fragment with modifications reported as consistent with standardized bone tools . Although there are stone tools in the level associated with the rib, the majority of the fauna represents use of the cave by cave bears, there are clear indications of carnivore modifications on the bones, and there are no other traces of human impact on the bones (e.g., cutmarks). The problems with these two examples are illustrative of the difficulties demonstrating early Neandertal standardized bone tools. As a result, these bones are excluded from lists of Neandertal bone tool repertoires. Here we report four lissoir fragments that were recovered from recent excavations in three separate and radiometrically dated archaeological deposits at two Neandertal sites. Lissoirs (French: to make smooth, smoother) are a formal, standardized bone-tool type, made by grinding and polishing, interpreted as being used to prepare hides, and previously only associated with modern humans. These bones are the earliest evidence of specialized bone tools associated with Neandertals.
Further reading: PNAS August 27, 2013 vol. 110 no. 35 14186-14190 (open source).