New discovery suggests that the Neanderthals were far more intelligent than we thought.
This discovery shows Neanderthals wove fibre and ropes and implies that they were capable of complex skills with numbers.
Every time there is a new discovery with regard to Neanderthals, a new door opens into their inner world. And this world is surprisingly similar to the world of humans and is perhaps even a precursor to skills we consider as exclusively human.
The word ‘Neanderthal’ had once acquired a derogatory meaning. But the Neanderthals, whom early paleontologists considered as nothing but huge stupid, quasi-apes, clearly had an enriched culture – with tools and crafts. They were even capable of abstract symbolism.
In 2013, anthropologists Bruce Hardy and Marie Moncel along with a team, discovered that Neanderthals showed ‘behavioral variability and complexity’ almost 71,000 years ago (71 KYA).
This period, in technical language, is called as MIS-4 or Marine Isotope Stage-4, by paleo-climatologists.
This nomenclature is based on oxygen isotope composition found in marine sediments and ice cores dating back to this period. MIS-4 essentially means that the referred period was a cold-glacial one.
One of the dominant academic beliefs about Neanderthals is that they became extinct because they were inefficient foragers. They lacked the ability to hunt quick and fast animals like rabbits and birds.
Hunting such animals needed projectile usage, a technological innovation over the initial stone tools. It was considered obvious that Neanderthals could not have developed at such a technology.
A paper published in 2013 in the Journal of Human Evolution even suggested that the Neanderthal inability to shift to rabbit diet contributed to their extinction.
In a paper published inQuaternary Science Reviews, Hardy, Moncel and team made quite a few interesting observations:
Using residue analysis of stone tools with supporting evidence from zooarchaeology, we show that Neanderthals at the Abri du Maras had detailed knowledge of their surrounding environment, captured fast and agile prey (rabbits, fish and birds), exploited a range of plant species, and used composite technology such as hafted stone points and the manufacture of string and cordage. Overall, we present evidence which demonstrates that Neanderthals at the Abri du Maras were far from inefficient foragers.
Hardy, Moncel and team did fracture-and-wear analysis on six stone artefacts and found five of them being consistent with impact fractures.
This meant that they were most probably used as projectile weapons for hunting.
Further analysis of the residue – particularly at the proximal edge of the artefacts showed that three of them had plant, wood and/or skin residues.
On two artefacts they also discovered mushroom spores. This was a new opening.
Seven years ago, the anthropologists made a cautious but tentative suggestion:
While it is not possible to identify the specific types of mushroom or whether they were brought to the site in fresh or dried condition, their presence provides another glimpse into the hidden world of perishable items possibly used by Neanderthals.
The paper has also pointed out another important element which possibly was a feature of Neanderthal life – string making.
The team observed the fibres in the archaeological context of the cave dwelling that ‘are not twisted in their natural state which suggests that they were twisted by the inhabitants of the Abri du Maras and may therefore provide evidence of the manufacture of string or cordage.’ This discovery had many implications.
Yet, what if the twisting of the fibres happened naturally during some other woodwork by cave dwellers like cutting, scrapping, whittling etc.?
The scientists experimented with activities like scraping, cutting, and slicing etc. of the plants that the cave dwellers would have access to – ‘a variety of non-woody plants (roots, tubers, reeds, etc.)’ and found that such activities produced ‘no twisted fibres such as those observed’.
Again, they were cautious: ‘While not definitive, the lack of twisted fibres in these experiments lends some credence to the hypothesis that these derive from cordage.’
What does a proof of such cordage imply for Neanderthals?
First, the fact that strings could be produced also implied possible ‘simple knowledge of knotting, weaving, and looping,’ which in turn makes quite a variety of products like ‘nets, containers,. . ., baskets, carrying devices, ties, straps, harness, clothes, shoes, beds, bedding, mats, flooring, roofing and walling’ possible.
It also means that these could facilitate other technologies like attaching a sharp stone artefact to a stick.
For maritime technology, strings are mandatory. Modern humans reaching as far as Australia around 50 KYA, is considered as proof of the presence of cordage in their society.
The 2013 paper states: ‘The fibers on the stone tools from the Abri du Maras could have come from one of these uses.’
Yet, then ‘conclusive evidence was lacking.’
Between 2013 and 2020 there has been another important paper.
A 2017 study in Nature analysed the ‘ancient DNA from five specimens of Neanderthal calcified dental plaque’ from Spy cave in Belgium and the El Sidrón cave, Spain.
The results showed regional variation in Neanderthal diet. The Belgian Neanderthal group diet ‘was heavily meat based and included woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep (mouflon)’. On the other hand, ‘no meat’ was detected in the diet of Spain cave Neanderthals with their ‘dietary components of mushrooms, pine nuts, and moss’.
So Neanderthals did gather mushrooms for food. They also indulged in self-medication.
In 2020, seven years later Hardy, Moncel and a team of scientists have presented what their paper calls ‘direct evidence of Neanderthal fibre technology’ and have weighed in on what it means for our understanding of the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals.
The earlier studies of the stone artefacts had employed light microscopy. The identified cordage remnants were ‘too fragmentary to be conclusive.’ This time they identified a stone artefact (labelled G8 128) with a string that was ‘approximately 6.2 mm in length and approximately 0.5 mm in width’.
Apart from a very high resolution scanning electron microscope (SEM) that produced clear evidence of ‘Z’ and ‘S’ twists in the fibres – showing that it was artificially made, they also employed (Fourier-Transform) FT-Raman spectroscopic study of the strands which gives a peep into their chemical composition in a non-invasive manner.
The spectroscopic analysis shows rich cellulose content. The authors suggest that the string, if contemporaneous with the tool, could have come on the artefact with the latter being ‘wrapped around it as part of a haft or could even have been part of a net or bag.’
The clear proof of fibre technology in Neanderthals has important implications for our understanding of the cognitive skills and social structure of our closest extinct evolutionary forerunners.
The authors of the paper discuss this elaborately, which is worth quoting in detail:
The production of cordage is complex and requires detailed knowledge of plants, seasonality, planning, retting, etc. Indeed, the production of cordage requires an understanding of mathematical concepts and general numeracy in the creation of sets of elements and pairs of numbers to create a structure. … The cord fragment from Abri du Maras is the oldest direct evidence of fibre technology to date. Its production demonstrates a detailed ecological understanding of trees and how to transform them into entirely different functional substances. Fibre technology would have been an important part of everyday life and would have influenced seasonal scheduling and mobility. Furthermore, the production of cordage implies a cognitive understanding of numeracy and context sensitive operational memory. Given the ongoing revelations of Neanderthal art and technology, it is difficult to see how we can regard Neanderthals as anything other than the cognitive equals of modern humans.
In their 2013 paper, the same authors have pointed out an important problem in Neanderthal studies: they are always focused on Neanderthal subsistence.
The authors argue that the possibility of cordage shows the need to emphasize ‘other activities, such as the procurement of raw material for and manufacture of string’ in the Neanderthal context. And in 2020 they have presented definite proof as well.
In his poem Mushroom Hunters, Neil Gaiman visualises the sling that held the baby as women gathered mushrooms as an important yet ignored technology – a kind of symbolism for the lesser noticed and more feminine component of technology and science:
… The women, who did not need to run down prey,
had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them
left at the thorn bush and across the scree
and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree,
because sometimes there are mushrooms.
Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools,
The first tool of all was a sling for the baby
to keep our hands free
and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in,
the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers.
Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break. ...
Now that we know that Neanderthals did have the knowledge for cordage and they also had mushroom meals, reading the poem again adds a new dimension from our deep past. The women who made the mushroom baskets and the slings to hold the babies were Neanderthal!
We know today that we are admixture of the ‘anatomically modern humans’ and Neanderthals.
Perhaps we received more than just genes from them.
Perhaps, in every knot we make, there is a Neanderthal contribution.