We like to think of ourselves as special. We’re Homo sapiens, after all. But a new study of Ice Age Europe has found that our supposedly unique bone tools, a sign of higher intelligence, weren’t so unique after all. Neanderthals fashioned and used hundreds of the same tools while butchering animals and preparing hides, according to a new paper.
Evidence for this has arisen, in recent years, from two Neanderthal sites of some note – starting with the Chagyrskaya Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. Here, researchers found about 1,200 bone tools, including a large number of “retouchers,” which act as light hammers for cutting and shaping stone tools.
The scientists envisioned that, some 60,000 years to 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals hauled dead bison to the cave through cold weather for processing. Like early H. sapiens, they used animals as sources for both food and raw materials. And it sure looked like they manufactured bone tools. But was Chagyrskaya an isolated pocket of innovation or part of something wider?
Besides Chagyrskaya, simple bone tools have turned up in small numbers at Neanderthal sites in Crimea, Ukraine, Germany and the Czech Republic.
But until 2019, researchers had waited for another major processing site like the Siberian cave. They found one in France, at the existing Chez-Pinaud site, positioned near a tributary of the Charente River. In 2019 and 2020, archaeologists from France, Belgium and Russia excavated a small area and found 103 bone tools, including 83 retouchers.
They concluded that hunter-gatherer Neanderthals had used the site to process a wide range of animals, including reindeer, horses and bison, during the cold season.
As they cleaned off bones harvested from the large-hoofed animals, Neanderthals made retouchers, beveled tools and at least one rounded tool similar to a present-day leather-working instrument. The Neanderthals likely used the retouchers to sharpen stone tools dulled from scraping carcasses. And the rounded tool would have come in handy while processing hides.
Researchers looked for fresh bone cuts carried out shortly after the animal had died, and not accidental damage. Those indicated the work of a living, thinking Neanderthal who may have cut the bone down to size or shaped an edge. Overall, these craftsmen made small tools, with the largest measuring about 6 inches in length.
“Bone tools represent a new means for exploring and understanding Neanderthal technology,” said a statement, “which has apparently not yet revealed all its secrets.”
A multi-functional bone tool from the France site. (Credit: M.Baumann-TraceoLab-ULiège)
Some 45,000 years ago, H. sapiens migrated into Western Europe and replaced the Neanderthal population, which eventually went extinct.
To fill the void, Ice Age humans developed surprisingly sophisticated cultures with bone jewelry, group hunting techniques and houses made out of mammoth bones. To our credit, we left behind a deep record of bone instruments, including large tools and weapons and smaller figurines and ornaments.
Read More: Why Did Neanderthals Disappear?