The discovery of ancient leather-working tools at two sites in France, where it's known that Neanderthals once lived, has provided new evidence that Neanderthals were able to produce specialized tools even before they made contact with modern humans.
Neanderthals were a species closely related to humans, that lived in Europe, western Asia and central Asia, between around 300,000 years ago up to around 40,000 years ago. We know about them from their fossils, and it's believed that they either went extinct (possibly due to competition with humans) or they interbred with humans and were replaced. There's been some debate in the scientific community about what Neanderthals were like before they encountered humans, though. Some believe that they had developed cultural advancements (like specialized tools) independent of humans, while others believe that they only developed those advancements after the two species met up.
The tool that researchers found at the Neanderthal sites is one that is still in use today (in some places). It's called a lissoir, and when the polished, rounded end of the tool is pushed against a leather hide, it makes the leather softer and more water resistant. This tool shows a level of sophistication beyond the stone and more simplistic bone tools that are typically associated with Neanderthal.
Humans have been using lissoirs for a long time, but dating bones found at the site that were near these tools shows that they were from around 50,000 years ago, which pre-dates when humans and Neanderthals met up. Also, both of these sites show that only Neanderthals lived there, so humans didn't contaminate the sites afterwards.
"If Neanderthals developed this type of bone tool on their own, it is possible that modern humans then acquired this technology from Neanderthals," Marie Soressi of Leiden University in The Netherlands, said in a statement. "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 Neandertals to our direct ancestors."
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Another possibility acknowledged by the researchers is that this may mean that Neanderthals at these sites had earlier contact with humans than we figure. They'll be conducting more research at other sites to help confirm this either way, but for now, it's some fairly compelling evidence that Neanderthals were more developed, culturally, than we've given them credit for in the past.
"Lissoirs like these are a great tool for working leather, so much so that 50 thousand years after Neanderthals made these, I was able to purchase a new one on the Internet from a site selling tools for traditional crafts," Soressi said in the press release. "It shows that this tool was so efficient that it had been maintained through time with almost no change. It might be one or perhaps even the only heritage from Neanderthal times that our society is still using today."
(Images courtesy: Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects)
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