Advanced Tools of Neanderthals
An instrument of manual operation; an implement, usually held in one’s hand, for performing or facilitating.
Tool use in hominins is considered a leap in our evolutionary history. It indicated both an understanding of symbolic learning and how to use the environment to one’s advantage. For Neanderthals, tools were usually simple, made of either bone or stone, and frequently specialized for one or another use, typically using the same set of techniques to create them. There is well-documented evidence that tool use did exist at Neanderthal sites; however, there is still debate over whether or not Neanderthals invented their own tools, or if they learned them from the encroaching Anatomically Modern Human populations migrating from Africa (Soressi et al. 2013; Tyron and Faith 2013).
The time period when Neanderthals were living in Europe and making these tools is known as the Middle-Paleolithic (Simek 1998; Villa et al. 2008). This era is compared with the Upper-Paleolithic, which is usually more associated with human migration in to Europe from Africa.
Typically, tools in Europe were made of flint, whereas in Africa tools tended to be made of flint, quartz, and sandstone (Lazuen 2012). Two main tool-making practices were utilized by Neanderthals. For stone, the levallois technique was used, which involved flaking pieces of stone off of the core to create a sharp edge or point (Lazuen 2012; Tyron and Faith 2013). A different form called the Lissoir Style, lissoir being French for “to make smooth,” describes the specific method by which the Neanderthals would have prepared bone (as opposed to stone) tools for use, usually preparing animal skins to be worn (Soressi et al. 2013).
While most Neanderthal tools appear to have been made for scraping and toughening animal hides (Vos 2015), research done by Bodea et al. (1999) suggests that they may have also been used for hunting. Remains from a wild ass, found in Syria, included the point of a levallois tool embedded in the vertebra. The angle and depth at which the tip was buried suggests that it is unlikely that the tool was used for cutting or preparing the animal for meat or wear. The authors discussed whether or not the tool was attached to a handle (hafted), or if it had been the tip of a projectile. Overall, this tool is suggestive of some of the other uses that levallois tools may have served for Neanderthals (Villa et al. 2008; Bodea et al. 1999).
One valuable discovery made at some middle Paleolithic sites includes bitumen, that was likely fired and used as glue for hafting purposes. The birch used to make this material would likely have been sourced from several kilometers away from the site at which this evidence was found, which provides remarkable clues about Neanderthal creativity and ingenuity (Villa and Soriano 2010).
The hafting process would have consisted of creating a stone tip that was pointed on both the upper and lower sides of the long edge, with a flat back. The flat back was mounted on to a wooden shaft, which would have been shaved to an angle at the edge. The stone was then secured using the bitumen glue and/or muscle sinew from previously hunted fauna (Villa and Soriano 2010).
It appears as though Neanderthals were likely good hunters, contrary to what was believed several years ago, especially considering the evidence above featuring the wild ass. As such they had a variety of stone tools at their disposal for everything from killing, butchering, and preparing animal hides (Villa and Soriano 2010; Villa et al. 2008). Several stone tools found have been examined for various technical elements as well as for a better understanding as to what they were used for and how. It was clear based on the evidence that the tools had been created using the levallois technique. Notches on some of the tools indicated that they may have been hafted, or mounted onto a handle, for more efficient use. Overall, two different hunting tools were found. One larger, and one smaller, assumedly used differently (Tyron and Faith 2013).
Soressi et al. (2013) discussed four different tool fragments found at known Neanderthal sites, suggesting that these are some of the first and oldest tools to be associated with these hominins. They appear to show little wear from carnivore or other potential sources of modification other than the Neanderthals who shaped them. The bones likely come from the ribs of large hoofed animals, and all included striations that suggest a consistent method, the lissoir, for polishing and grinding the bones into the desired shape. The authors suggest that the likely use for these bones would have been to prepare animal skins (Soressi et al. 2013; Barras 2013).
The researchers made a point to compare these bone tools with others to ensure that environmental wear, which can sometimes produce similar objects, was not the source of the shaping of the bones. It was found that these bones were very likely shaped intentionally, and would have served the very specific purpose of toughening animal hides to be worn and preserved, making these tools highly specialized. This adds to the debate about whether or not Neanderthals invented these tools independently, or if they were learned from modern humans migrating from Africa (Soressi et al. 2013; Barras 2013).
Smaller stone tools have been discovered in Europe in increasingly larger numbers. It appears as though they were intentionally manicured to be smaller in size. They date to the approximate period when Neanderthals would have inhabited this area, between 400 and 40 kya. Central Europe revealed large numbers of these unique tools, which researchers have called Taubachian, to distinguish them from other tools of the era (Borel et al. 2016).
Borel et al. (2016) conducted research on these smaller tools in order to ascertain what they may have been used for. Comparing features of the environment from geography, to flora and fauna, the researchers sought to get a full understanding of the context under which these tools were made. Dating approximated the era of these tools to be roughly between 116 and 70 kya. It appeared that the size and shape of the tools was clearly intentional, and the edge that was used for a specific task was consistent, meaning that the opposite side of the tool was likely the part that was gripped by the user. However, shapes between tools were not consistent, and there was no way to effectively categorize the tools for use, based on this feature. It appears as though most of the tools were used for scraping; however, there is no way to be certain that that was the only use tools at a given site may have had. It is relatively clear that the makers and users of these tools were Neanderthals. Some tools may have been attached to various other materials, such as handles, to make the tool more effective (Borel et al. 2016).
Another feature that is yet unclear is whether or not, in more forested areas, use of stone tools coincided with the use of wooden tools as well. Four wooden spears were found in the mud of the banks of a lake in what is now Germany, along with the skeletal remains of a family of horses (Villa et al. 2008). Cuts on the bones of the horses match the spears as well as tools that are similar. The wooden spears were all made of spruce, and one of pine; however, the consistency with which they were made suggests an understanding of the raw materials of the area. Other impact scars on the tips of certain tools indicate use as projectiles, either attached to thrusting or throwing spears (Villa and Soriano 2010). Naturally this lends more support, as well, to the idea that wooden tools may have been part of the Neanderthal toolbox (Borel et al. 2016; Villa et al. 2008).
The expertise with which these tools were made suggests that they were made by craftspeople who understood well their purpose and materials, as well as knowledge of the raw materials in the area (Borel et al. 2016; Villa et al. 2008). The fossilized tools we see today suggest a consistency through which they were made and used, suggesting that the hominins who made them understood the various textures of bones and stones, well enough to create this successful method for creating these tools (Soressi et al. 2013; Barras 2013). This idea is supported by the other tools found at the site, made from stone, include hand-axes, and knives, showing that Neanderthals likely had several kinds of tools in their repertoire.
It is still a topic of debate whether or not Neanderthals began producing tools before or after the arrival of Homo sapiens into Africa. Fossil records from the Arcy-sur-Cure site in France date one of the youngest Neanderthal sites known, at 34,000 years ago. The authors assert that the hominins that lived here were, in fact, Neanderthals, based on a series of features related to skeletal remains. This helps indicate that Neanderthals lived up until relatively recently in our evolutionary history, which implies that coexistence or at least contact between Anatomically Modern Humans and Neanderthals, was likely given the temporal and geographic overlap between them in Western Europe (Hublin et al. 1996). Rossano (2010) claims Neanderthals were expert “toolmakers,” meaning that it is possible that they made tools independent of human influence. Additionally, the age of most of these tool remains suggests that they were made by Neanderthals before humans arrived (Tyron and Faith 2013).
Modern human tools were much more advanced and could be categorized by many different functions, more so than the Neanderthal tools could. Additionally, (Klarreich 2004; Klein 2003) suggests that Neanderthals may have been able to copy the toolmaking of modern humans, but they did not seem to do much to pass them further. If it was the case that Neanderthals learned tool use from modern humans, why wouldn’t they have learned to master all of the complex tools that the humans made, instead of just a simple few, especially when the evidence suggests that Neanderthals did have the mental capacity to master craftsmanship (Villa et al. 2008).
However, lack of evidence, in some cases, makes it difficult for bone remains to be identified as being a true tool, or simply bones that have been modified by other parts of the environment (Soressi et al. 2013). What does appear to be clear is that there are tools of many kinds all over Europe, suggesting that tool production and use in Neanderthals was not limited to one particular geographic climate or one particular group of hominins, which could easily suggest their inventiveness independent of modern humans (Borel et al. 2016).
Part of the important implications of toolmaking in Neanderthals and other hominins is the fact that they represent symbolic thinking and social learning. Tool use was likely passed on from one person to another via observational learning by the student (Barras 2013). The cognitive demands of symbolic thinking likely helped the development of working memory in Neanderthals, and could have potentially helped with other forms of communication, such as language (Gibson 1991; Rossano 2010).
There are other cultural practices that do not seem to have a clear origin, such as the burying of the dead, which marks a significant milestone in hominin cognition as it establishes differentiation between life and death (Barras 2013). Villa et al. (2008)) argue that more research on hunting tools in Europe during the middle-paleolithic period is necessary for having a better understanding of the behavior of Neanderthals at the time.
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