Neanderthals: not so primitive after all

The research, conducted by New York University (USA), University of Tübingen, and National Museums in Berlin (Germany) suggests that these our ancestors were more intelligent and cultured than we thought

In a groundbreaking study by New York University, the University of Tübingen, and the National Museums in Berlin, evidence has emerged that challenges the primitive stereotype often associated with Neanderthals. This research reveals that these prehistoric humans crafted stone tools using a sophisticated multi-component adhesive, marking the earliest evidence of complex glue in Europe.

Beyond simple tribes: the complexity of Neanderthal society

Recent discoveries have gradually peeled away the layers of misunderstanding surrounding Neanderthals, showcasing a society far more complex than mere hunter-gatherer tribes. The use of advanced tool-making techniques underscores not just their intelligence but their intricate knowledge base.

A leap in tool evolution

“These well-preserved tools exhibit a technological solution quite similar to those created by early modern humans in Africa,” states Radu Iovita, co-author of the study. “However, the exact recipe reflects the making of hand-held tool handles,” indicating a nuanced understanding and application of technology.

The research revisited artifacts from Le Moustier, a French archaeological site discovered in the early 20th century, used by Neanderthals during the Middle Paleolithic era, approximately between 120,000 and 40,000 years ago. These artifacts, housed in Berlin’s Museum of Prehistory and Early History, had been individually packaged and remained intact since the 1960s, explains Ewa Dutkiewicz, the study’s lead.

The recipe: ochre and bitumen

The team found traces of a mixture of ochre and bitumen on various stone tools, such as scrapers, flakes, and blades. Surprisingly, the ochre content exceeded 50%, a significant find as air-dried bitumen can serve as an adhesive but loses its sticky properties with such high ochre proportions.

“However, when we used liquid bitumen, which isn’t suitable for gluing by itself, adding 55% ochre created a malleable mass,” Dutkiewicz elaborates. This mixture was sticky enough to hold a stone tool in place without adhering to the hands, ideal for creating a handle.

Microscopic examination of wear traces on these tools confirmed that the adhesives were indeed used in this manner, representing a technological milestone previously attributed only to early modern humans, Homo sapiens, in Africa, not Neanderthals in Europe.

The significance of adhesive technologies

The development and application of adhesives in tool production are among the strongest material evidence of cultural evolution and cognitive capabilities among early humans. The effort to collect ochre and bitumen from distant locations for these purposes indicates significant planning and targeted effort, highlighting a level of sophistication in Neanderthal societies akin to that of early Homo sapiens.

“This study shows that early Homo sapiens in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe shared similar thought patterns,” concludes Schmidt. “Their adhesive technologies bear the same significance for our understanding of human evolution,” challenging long-held perceptions and emphasizing the nuanced capabilities of Neanderthals.

Source: New York University / Science Advances

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