Neanderthals Invented Leather Tool Still Used Today

Posted August 13th, 2013 at 6:06 pm (UTC+0)
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This image shows four views of the most complete lissoir found during excavations at the Neandertal site of Abri Peyrony. (Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l'Azé I Projects)

Four views of the most complete lissoir found during excavations at the Neanderthal site of Abri Peyrony. (Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects)

New evidence shows Neanderthals likely invented a type of hand tool that’s still being today by high-end leather workers.

Two international teams of researchers reached that conclusion after discovering remnants of  bone tools crafted by ancient man about 50,000 years ago.

The tools found at two  Paleolithic sites in southwest France were identified as a lissoir, or smoother. The tools are unlike anything found at similar archaeological sites. They were fashioned from deer ribs and have a polished tip that, when pressed against an animal hide, creates leather that is softer, polished and more water resistant.

“For now, the bone tools from these two sites are one of the better pieces of evidence we have for Neanderthals developing on their own a technology previously associated only with modern humans,” said Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

McxPherron, along with his colleague Michel Lenoir of the University of Bordeaux, found three of the bone tools while excavating the Abri Peyrony, also known as Haut de Combe-Capelle, archeological site. The first of the four bone tools was found  at another site called Pech-de-l’Azé I, by a second team led by Marie Soressi of Leiden University in The Netherlands.

“If Neanderthals developed this type of bone tool on their own, it is possible that modern humans then acquired this technology from Neanderthals,” said Soressi. “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 Neanderthals to our direct ancestors.”

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal male displayed at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany (Erich Ferdinand via Wikimedia Commons)

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal male displayed at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany (Erich Ferdinand via Wikimedia Commons)

However, the researchers  haven’t ruled out the possibility that the tools may instead show that modern humans arrived in Europe earlier than thought and began to impact Neanderthal behavior.

In order to resolve that conflict, scientists would need to find better preserved evidence of bone tools at additional excavation sites in central Europe.

The researchers aren’t sure how many Neanderthals created and used the tools or whether their use was widespread.

If the scientists hadn’t had experience working with later bone tools, they could have missed the first three bone tools  since they were  fragments less than a few centimeters long. The tools were also not something  archeologists normally look 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,” said 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.”

This isn’t the first time Neanderthal bone tools have been found, but previous implements  looked like stone tools made with stone knapping percussive techniques.

A reconstruction of how lissoirs, made of deer ribs, could have been used to prepare hides to make them more supple, lustrous and impermeable. (© Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects)

“Neanderthals sometimes made scrapers, notched tools and even hand axes from bone. They also used bone as hammers to resharpen their stone tools,” said McPherron. “But here we have an example of Neanderthals 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 the researchers found were in sediments that contained  typical Neanderthal stone tools, along with the bones of hunted animals, including horses, reindeer, red deer and bison.

The research teams say they  found evidence only of Neanderthals at both dig sites, and no sign of modern humans that could have tainted and compromised their findings.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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