Sun. Dec 15th, 2019

The 50,000-year-old tool that demonstrates the intelligence of Neanderthals

Black and thick tar and a flint scale (flint). This tool made 50,000 years ago by Neanderthals It may seem like a simple construction for the times – with supercomputers, space exploration … – but it is really the sign of superior intelligence.

It appeared in 2016 on the Dutch artificial beach of Zandmotor, near Hague, which had been created with dredged sand from the bottom of the North Sea. The site then became a treasure for archaeologists because of the large number of prehistoric artifacts that began to appear. Not that they arose by magic. The land used was part of the steppe (Doggerland) that connected the United Kingdom and the Netherlands during the last glaciation.


The tool appeared in 2016 on the Dutch artificial beach of Zandmotor, near The Hague

The utensil is still what has been seen many other times: a small piece of flint with sharp edges. There is, however, an element that makes it exceptional. A few drops of birch tar located at its end which, when hardened, allowed Neanderthals to use the tool as a scraper for animal skins or blade to cut vegetable fiber.

Neanderthals could have used birch tar to attach stone tools to wooden handles, although this one in particular probably had a grip made only of tar, since there are no traces of a wooden or bone shaft, which would have allowed to apply more pressure on the flint without cutting your hands.

Exceptional utensil

It has a few drops of birch tar located at its end

“The production of such an adhesive was an important technological development, which demonstrates a complex technology and advanced cognitive ability. The complex knowledge necessary for its production remained in small groups with highly mobile lives in northwestern Europe, ”write the authors of study published in the magazine Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS)

The team led by Marcel Niekus, an archaeologist of the Foundation for Stone Age Research, is that Neanderthals could perform complex and multi-step tasks, something that is supported by other recent discoveries such as the fact that they made jewelry, had a precision grip and could even have painted rock art.

Complex technology

The production of an adhesive of this type was an important technological development

Radiocarbon dating indicated that the piece was 50,000 years old, dating back to a time before the arrival of modern humans in the area. The tar, which has been preserved thanks to the cold and oxygen-free conditions of the sediments at the bottom of the sea, could have been an essential element among the tools of the Stone Age.

The researchers tried to recreate the manufacture of the utensil, collecting strips of birch bark, in a process that needs at least 40 kilos of wood. They piled clay on them and set it on fire to heat the crust to 300 or 400 degrees, hot enough to produce thick tar, as the resinous crust disintegrated.

The tool dates back to a time before the arrival of modern humans in the area

When comparing the chemical composition of modern tar and its impurities with old tar, experts discovered that Neanderthals probably used the same procedure. But making enough tar to decorate an unremarkable tool was undoubtedly difficult without pottery to pick it up at high temperatures and store it.

"This is an ugly little piece that wasn't even retouched or molded," archaeologists admit. "The fact that they have used this procedure on such a simple object suggests that they used adhesives on a regular basis," they add. Birch tar has also been found in other Neanderthal remains 200,000 years ago in Campitello (Italy) and in Königsaue (Germany), where the evidence is around 50,000 years old.

Modern humans in South Africa used adhesives for 100,000 years

Modern humans in South Africa used adhesives for 100,000 years
(Rijksmuseum Van Oudheden)

The Neanderthals of Italy could also have used pine resin about 50,000 years ago. The problem with this natural substance is that it is not so flexible, which makes researchers think that birch tar was probably their first choice. There are also traces of bitumen found in Neanderthal contexts between 42,000 and 70,000 years ago.

To put the finding in context, one must know that modern humans produced adhesives in South Africa produced for approximately 100,000 years. Because such findings are rarely preserved, “this does not definitively prove that there are no modern human adhesives or older Neanderthals. We just haven't found them yet, ”the researchers conclude.

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