Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
The record of the Neanderthals is nothing short of spectacular. Countless sites contain the traces of the individuals who were once our closest relatives, allowing archaeologists and anthropologists to recreate and reconstruct their activities throughout the millennia. And if one thing’s for certain from these reconstructions, it’s that the Neanderthals were talented toolmakers. This intriguing species made and manipulated a sophisticated set of ancient tools, including spears, scrapers and saws, which they fashioned out of stone and several less-lasting materials, like wood. And though the Neanderthal tools were previously portrayed as basic and brutish, scientists are now stressing a new narrative: These implements were as innovative and important as those made by our own ancestors. When Were Neanderthals Discovered? When European archaeologists and anthropologists started stumbling across the first Neanderthal fossils almost two centuries ago, they didn’t imagine that they’d discovered a distinct species. While their initial investigations inspired them to think that they’d identified some of the oldest specimens of Homo sapiens in Europe, it wasn’t until years later that they realized the remains represented another species altogether, completely separate from our own. Named Homo neanderthalensis after the sites in the Neander Valley where some of the specimens were first found, the shape of the species’ skull — which was low and long — and the build of the species’ body — which was short and stubby— were initially interpreted as indications that the Neanderthals were neither intelligent nor innovative. And despite the fact that some of these first fossils were buried beside stashes of stone tools, the Neanderthals were swiftly branded as a species of brutes. Read More: Who Were the Neanderthals? In actuality, the Neanderthals’ unique anatomy allowed the species to survive the coldest conditions of the Ice Age in Europe. And along with this ability was a whole assortment of adaptive behaviors, the sum of which made these individuals much more advanced than their discoverers were probably willing to admit. Read More: The Fascinating World of Neanderthal Diet, Language and Other Behaviors Social Structure Affected Neanderthal Tools and Weapons From the origin of the species around 400,000 years ago to their disappearance around 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals behaved in a somewhat solitary way, spending their time in small, itinerant tribes with 12 to 25 individuals. That said, some studies are starting to suggest that they also gathered in much more substantial groups, too. Never prone to staying in the same space, these tribes bounced between several sites according to the season, returning to the same settlements sporadically across centuries. But, these tribes weren’t completely cut off from their counterparts, occasionally coming across 10 to 20 other troops, with whom they shared similar social identities and skill sets. What Tools Did Neanderthals Use? Of course, one of the most important sets of skills for these individuals involved the crafting of ancient tools. Stone Flakes Almost from the start of the species, this centered around the creation of sophisticated stone “flakes” with flat faces, thin, sharp sides and a flair for cutting, carving and scraping. To form these flakes, the Neanderthals selected small chunks of stone, also called “cores,” and trimmed their sides until they took the shape of a tortoiseshell — flat on one side and spherical on the other. They then smashed the top of the trimmed stone with a single smash, spitting out flakes of a standard shape and size, which were then wielded as tools. Core Technique The Neanderthals developed different versions of this particular “prepared core” technique in different areas and at different times depending on their desires, abilities, access to rocks and relationships to one another, since these techniques were transmitted and shared socially. When developed, these distinct approaches all produced a particular shape and size of flake, which was optimized for a particular purpose. Read More: Ancient Predators: A Guide to the Neanderthal Hunt Tools of Neanderthals and Their Uses Some studies say that the Neanderthals made as many as 60 forms of flakes, all fit for specific functions. And though the species wielded some of these tools without any additional shaping and sharpening, they also modified many others into more sophisticated, more specialized implements, including points, scrapers, saws and awls. By their final years, the Neanderthals even fashioned flakes long and large enough to be turned into blades. Clothing Making Neanderthals employed these tools to slaughter animals, to work wood and other malleable materials, and to prepare and punch holes into hides, which were then tied together to create clothing. And though the species’ strong, skilled hands helped them manipulate these implements, the Neanderthals eventually hafted their tools to make them even easier to maneuver, setting them into handles and securing them with ties and adhesives, such as birch tar, which was formulated from the bark of birch trees. Meat Slicing Today, archaeologists understand the uses of these tools thanks to their shape, size and pattern of wear and tear. In fact, the tools that they’ve found across Neanderthal sites all show a unique smattering of scratches. Tools used for shaping stone displayed a different type of damage than those used for molding other materials or slicing meat, for instance. But some scientists stress that many of the Neanderthals’ tools weren’t so well preserved. While archaeologists have found an abundance of stone tools, they’ve identified far fewer implements made out of other more fragile or flimsy materials, though their finds of wooden spears and bone lissoirs suggest that the Neanderthals manipulated these materials, too. Read More: Neanderthals May Have Used Animal Skulls as Decor What Tools Didn’t Neanderthals Use? The ages of many artifacts suggest that the Neanderthals came up with the ideas for their tools all on their own, though some scientists suspect that H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens could’ve shared toolmaking strategies in periods of population overlap. Though the two species made comparable tools for thousands of years prior to these periods, one study states that almost 3,000 years of cohabitation in France and Spain could’ve involved the exchange of ideas, explaining the striking similarities in the material cultures of the two species in the area. Fiber and Weapon Technology On the other hand, there are also several tools from the time that scientists say were a specialty for our own species, including several forms of fiber and weapon technology. In addition to their bows and arrows, H. sapiens even made needles out of bone and antler around 60,000 years ago, paving the way for warmer, tighter-fitting clothing, though there are no indications that the Neanderthals were doing the same before their demise. Projectile Weaponry That said, archaeologists are always finding surprising new traces of Neanderthal technologies, stressing the significance of further work within their field. Some studies suggest, for instance, that the Neanderthals did dabble in projectile weaponry, with their skeletons showing signs of throwing trauma and their spears being an appropriate shape and size for flying through the air. String and Cordage Some scientists also add that the Neanderthals were adept at twisting fibers together, too, fabricating the world’s first forms of string. In fact, early examples of cordage could count as an indication of a much more intensive fiber industry, potentially involving the production of fabrics, bags, baskets and nets. Read More: Neanderthals Hunted and Ate Straight-Tusked Elephants Why Did Neanderthals Ultimately Decline? Now that their advanced toolmaking abilities are so well-documented, the traditional theory that the Neanderthals disappeared due to our own species’ technological superiority doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Instead, scientists stress that climate change, disease and demographic weakness could’ve combined with interspecies competition and assimilation to destroy the Neanderthals around 40,000 years ago. Read More: Why Did Neanderthals Disappear? All in all, archaeologists and anthropologists are abandoning the notion that the Neanderthals were a dimwitted bunch, blundering through the world without sophisticated, specialized tools. And as their discoveries advance their appreciation of the species’ tools and toolmaking strategies more and more, they’ve arrived at the conclusion that the species was once one of the sharpest in the human toolshed.