20120205-Mousterian_point 2.png
Mousterian point
Neanderthals were skilled tool makers but not as advanced as modern humans. Their tools including spear points and knives, most likely set in wooden handles, scrappers, pronged harpoons, and engraving tools. About 100,000 years ago they fashioned tools for cutting meat, cracking open bones and working wood. By fixed a blade on a handle the produced a skull crushing ax. They made flint scrapers with a bone hammer and used it scarp meat off reindeer bones. Scraping tools suggest that animal skins were made into clothing.

Many Neanderthal tools began as carefully-shaped stone cores, from which pieces were flaked off to make various kind of tools. Modern humans used lighter, more specialized tools such as flint blades and throwing spear points.

Neanderthals relied largely on “core” tools. To make them tool makers carefully shaped a stone “core” on both sides until a single blow would detach a sharp flake of desired shape and size. The earliest tools of this kind were found at the Le Moustier site in southwestern France and tools of that kind are mow called Mousterian tools.

Neanderthal flaked toolmaking skills remained largely unchanged for 100,000 years. Moustierian tools were more sophisticated than Acheulean hand axes and were made of stones that had been carefully trimmed before flakes were struck to shape it into a tool. To make them doesn’t require fine, precise toolmaking skills but they were difficult to make nevertheless. The rocks had be struck on just the right spot to produce a desired flake.

Primitive Neanderthal tools produced in four minutes by modern scientists were sharp enough to butcher a goat. More advanced tools where "backed" so they could fit snugly into the hand behind the index finger, which is used for leverage. Axes were made with notches for the thumbs and fingers.

Modern Humans 400,000-20,000 Years Ago (35 articles); First Villages, Early Agriculture and Bronze, Copper and Late Stone Age Humans (33 articles)

Websites and Resources on Neanderthals: Wikipedia: Neanderthals Wikipedia ; Neanderthals Study Guide ; Neandertals on Trial, from PBS; The Neanderthal Museum ; The Neanderthal Flute, by Bob Fink Websites and Resources on Prehistoric Art: Chauvet Cave Paintings ; Cave of Lascaux; Trust for African Rock Art (TARA); Bradshaw Foundation; Australian and Asian Palaeoanthropology, by Peter Brown

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Institute of Human Origins ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Talk Origins Index ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Human Evolution Images; Hominin Species ; Paleoanthropology Links ; Britannica Human Evolution ; Human Evolution ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations ; Humin Origins Washington State University ; University of California Museum of Anthropology; BBC The evolution of man"; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) ; PBS Evolution: Humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog ; New Scientist: Human Evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization); The Leakey Foundation; The Stone Age Institute; The Bradshaw Foundation ; Turkana Basin Institute; Koobi Fora Research Project; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa ; Blombus Cave Project; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution; American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Evolutionary Anthropology; Comptes Rendus Palevol ; PaleoAnthropology

Sophisticated Neanderthal Tools

Near the end of their existence Neanderthals developed more sophisticated tools with shafted points and handles (Châtelperronian technology) and Aurignacian blade tools generally associated with early modern humans.

Aurignacian tools are named after the French site of Auriganc where the tools were first found. They consisted of blades and advanced bone tools. Gravettian tools include hand-held spears, which made the hunting of large animals more feasible. Because the oldest Aurignacian tools predate the earliest modern human fossils, some scientists think they have been made by Neanderthals.

Aurignacian tools appeared when it is believed modern humans developed language and boats. This was a period when humans reached points all over the globe. Many of the sites where Aurignacian tools are found also contain art: sculptures or cave paintings.

Describing a sophisticated ax, French archaeologist Jean-Michel Geneste told National Geographic, "This was a multi-purpose tool. Different edges of it were used for different purposed — cutting, butchering, scraping, defleshing. It was the Swiss army knife of its day...We might detect 300 scars on an ax, each made during its shaping."

Explaining how there is more to making Neanderthal tools than meets the eye, French archaeologist Jacques Pelegrin told National Geographic, "You need a lot of brains for flint knapping. It would be like playing chess for us. You have to plan and organize how you are going to flake off each piece from the core ahead of time. Rocks are never standard. You have to adjust for differences. Flint breaks under certain conditions. You have to learn those. It takes months, if not years, to learn to do it well. I have worked flint for 15 years now and can say the techniques used by Neanderthals are no less difficult than those used later by modern humans."

Tools used by Neanderthals in Europe were markedly inferior to those used by “ Homo sapiens” living in Europe at the same time, while Neanderthal tools found in Israel and the Middle east were virtually identical to used by “ Homo sapiens” there. This has led some scientists to theorize that Neanderthals copied tools used by “ Homo sapiens” . Other say Neanderthals developed them on their own.

Mousterian Tools

The Mousterian industry is a lithic technology that replaced the Acheulean industry in Europe. Believed to have originated more than 300,000 years ago, it is named after the site of Le Moustier in France, where examples were first uncovered in the 1860s, and is associated with both Neanderthal and the earliest modern humans but is believed to have been refined and used primarily by the Neanderthals.. Examples of Mousterian tools have been found in Europe and Africa. In Europe, when Mousterian tools are found, it is often assumed that it is a Neanderthal site. [Source: The Guardian, Wikipedia +]

1911 image of tools from Le Moustier cave

Mousterian tools evolved from Acheulean tools, which are named after the site of Saint-Acheul in France and developed 1.76 million years ago. Acheulean tools were characterized not by a core, but by a biface, the most notable form of which was the hand axe. The earliest Acheulean ax appeared in the West Turkana area of Kenya and around the same time in southern Africa. Acheulean axes are larger, heavier and have sharp cutting edges that are chipped from opposite sides into a teardrop shape.

Mousterian technology it adopted the Levallois technique — a distinctive type of stone knapping — to produce smaller and sharper knife-like tools as well as scrapers. According to the University of California at Santa Barbara: “The Levallois technique of core preparation and flake removal is the earliest of the core preparation technologies. The technology works in four distinct stages. First the edges of a cobble are trimmed into a rough shape. Second, the upper surface of the core is trimmed to remove cortex and to produce a ridge running the length of the core, Third, a platform preparation flake is removed from one end of the core to produce an even, flat striking platform for the blow that will detach the flake. Finally, the end of the core is struck at the prepared platform site, driving a longitudinal flake off of the core following the longitudinal ridge. [Source: University of California at Santa Barbara =|=]

“There are two distinct advantages to this technique. The first is that the flakes removed in this manner are already in a preliminary shape, and only require minor modification before being put to use. Second, more usable cutting edge per pound of raw material can be made this way than can be made by producing core tools. Note how the final shape of this tool closely corresponds to the initial shape of the core from which it was struck. Also, notice how little edge trimming was necessary in order to get a very keen cutting edge on this tool. With care, a number of flakes could be removed from one core, producing much more usable cutting edge with less waste than if the core were thinned into a tool itself.” =|=

Neanderthals Invented a Tool Still Used Today?

A tool called a 'lissoir' made from deer ribs by Neanderthals is similar to instruments still used by modern leather workers. Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: “Archaeologists have unearthed the oldest specialised bone tools ever found in Europe, at sites where Neanderthals lived more than 40,000 years ago. “The slender, curved implements called "lissoirs" were shaped from deer ribs and likely used to work animal hides to make them softer, tougher and more waterproof. The tools are remarkable because they seem to pre-date the arrival of modern humans in Europe, suggesting that Neanderthals invented them, rather than copying the designs from humans. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, August 12, 2013]

Mousterian tools from Brno

“Similar tools, called slickers or burnishers, are still in use by leather workers today, meaning the instruments may be the only known examples of modern tools that owe their existence to our ancient Neanderthal relatives. "There's a good case to be made for Neanderthals inventing this one aspect of modern human technology," said Shannon McPherron at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. "It's the first time we've seen Neanderthals use bone in a way that uses its unique properties." |=|

“The tools are said to be "specialised" because they exploit particular features of bone, such as its toughness and flexibility. Lissoirs could not be made from a hard and brittle material like stone, because it would damage the leather and risk snapping in the user's hand. But made from bone, the tool would flex as it was pressed onto a hide. |=|

“Researchers led by Marie Soressi at Leiden University found the first large piece of a lissoir at a cave called Pech-de-l'Azé I on a tributary of the Dordogne in southwest France. The skull of a Neanderthal child, ash from a hearth and other Neanderthal remains were found at the same site, but there is no sign that humans ever lived there. The site dates to around 51,000 years ago. The second group, led by McPherron, unearthed three smaller tips of lissoirs at another Neanderthal site 35 kilometers away, beneath a shallow cliff face in Abri Peyrony. Carbon dating revealed that bone at the site was 41,000 to 48,000 years old.

“The tools were probably made from the ribs of red deer or reindeer, the authors write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The tip of each tool was tapered, ground and rounded off, and one side was polished to a shine. The other side was fresh, unmodified bone. Intact, each tool would have been 20 to 40 centimeters long, Soressi said. |=|

“Under the microscope, the tip of the largest tool, around 8 centimeters long, showed signs of wear from being used. The scientists saw similar abrasive marks when they made copies of the tools from fresh animal ribs and used them to smooth out a dry hide. The smaller tips likely broke off when the Neanderthals pressed too hard. |=|

“Other bone tools made by Neanderthals have been found before, but the lissoirs are thought to be the first that required a technological leap to exploit the special properties of bone. "They were taking a rib and probably snapping or grinding the end off it, then grinding the tip into a smooth arch shape. They were then pushing the tip into a hide, and that process of applying firm pressure across the hide makes the leather more pliable and more water resistant. They didn't choose any old bone, they chose ribs which have some give to them. The rib flexes in your hand and doesn't gouge the leather, it polishes it," said McPherron. |=|

Tools from Remete upper cave near Budapest

Theories About the Origin of the Neanderthal a Tool Still Used Today

According to Popular Archaeology: “A reconstruction of how lissoirs, made of deer ribs, could have been used to prepare hides to make them more supple, lustrous and impermeable” was made. “The natural flexibility of ribs helps keep a constant pressure against the hide without tearing it. The downward pressure ultimately results in a break that produces small fragments like three of the reported bones.” [Source: Popular Archaeology, August 12, 2013]

Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: “The scientists put forward several scenarios to explain the origins of the tools. Fossil evidence suggests that the first wave of modern humans reached Europe with stone and bone tools around 43,000 years ago. But perhaps they arrived much earlier, and Neanderthals learned bone tool skills from them. Another possibility is that the technology spread to Neanderthals in Europe from modern humans who were already in the Middle East. A third is that Neanderthals invented the tools and early modern humans adopted them when they arrived. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, August 12, 2013 |=|]

“Soressi discovered the larger lissoir in 2005, but had to wait for more fragments to be found before she could convince a journal to publish the work. "Neanderthals were able to produce these tools and they have so perfect a design that we are still using them today. What surprises me is to have something that lasts 50,000 years with almost no changes. It's so well adapted to the task," she said. "This adds to the evidence that Neanderthals were developing their own complexity culturally and brings us back to the question of whether they were doing this on their own, entirely independently, or under the influence of modern humans," said Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London. "It looks like there weren't modern humans alongside the Neanderthals passing this kind of technology across. But modern humans had made it to the Middle East at this time, and they bred with Neanderthals there, so maybe there could have been exchanges of information that then spread westwards," he said. |=|

“Stringer concedes that the Neanderthals might have invented the tools themselves. "They had big brains, complex societies and were skilful toolmakers. They survived under difficult conditions for long periods. The whole image of the Neanderthals being the grunting cavemen is out of the window, and for me has never been an accurate portrayal. They were not stupid." |=|

Discovery of the Specialized Neanderthal Tools

The Neanderthal site of Abri Peyrony (France) is where the three bone tools (lissoirs) were discovered. Popular Archaeology reported: “Excavations at two cave sites in southwestern France have yielded bone fragments that show intentional shaping, likely by Neanderthals, to create specialized tools. Dated to before the known advent of modern humans in Europe, researchers suggest that they are the earliest specialized bone tools produced by Neanderthals, implying the need to re-assess elements of current theoretical models of Neanderthals and modern humans in Europe. [Source: Popular Archaeology, August 12, 2013 +||+]

Tools from Le Dordogne

“Excavating at the Pech-de-l’Azé I and Abri Peyrony sites, both located at separate tributaries of the Dordogne river in southwestern France, co-leader Shannon P. McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and colleagues recovered and analyzed assemblages of Mousterian of Acheulian Tradition (MTA) stone artifacts, which also included specially shaped deer rib bone artifacts known as Lissoirs not usually associated with MTA finds. Lissoirs are a specialized tool type made by grinding and polishing, and are thought to have been used on hides to make them tough, impermeable, and lustrous. Three specimens were found at Abri Peyrony and were dated to 47,710 – 41,130 Cal BP using radiocarbon accelerator mass spectrometry, and one specimen at Pech-de-l’Azé I, dated to 51,400 ka using optically stimulated luminescence dating techniques. The researchers identified the rib bone fragments as coming from medium-sized ungulates, specifically red deer or reindeer. +||+

“The dates make the bone tool finds the earliest known of their type associated with Neanderthals. Usually, such tools have been identified with modern humans who came upon the scene at a later time, but the dating and their location within a context of MTA stone tools, which are usually associated with Neanderthals, suggest that they were created by Neanderthals, not modern humans”. +||+

Reports McPherron, et al., “The bones reported here demonstrate that Middle Paleolithic Neandertals were shaping animal ribs to a desired, utilitarian form and, thus, were intentionally producing standardized (or formal) bone tools using techniques specific to working bone. These bones are the earliest evidence of this behavior associated with Neandertals, and they move the debate over whether Neandertals independently invented aspects of modern human culture to before the time of population replacement.” +||+

“Thus, it remains to be determined whether MTA lissoirs are evidence that modern humans influenced Neandertals earlier and longer than previously suggested, whether these lissoirs represent independent invention and convergence, or whether, perhaps this time, Neandertals may have influenced subsequent Upper Paleolithic modern human populations in western Europe where lissoirs are common.” +||+

Details of their research have been published in a paper, Neandertals made the first specialized bone tools in Europe, by Marie Soressi, et al., in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Neanderthals Made the World’s First Glue

The world's oldest known glue was made by Neanderthals 200,000 years ago. But how it was made is somewhat of a mystery. Archaeologists suggest three possible ways. The University of Leiden reported: “A Neanderthal spear is predominantly made up of two parts, a piece of flint for the point, and a stick for the shaft. But one aspect is often overlooked, and has recently been puzzling archaeologists: the glue that fixes the point to the shaft. For this, Neanderthals used tar from birch bark, a material that researchers often assumed was complex and difficult to make. [Source:University of Leiden, Science Daily, August 31, 2017]

Moustierian tools from La Qunina

Leiden archaeologists have now shown that this assumption was unfounded. Led by Paul Kozowyk and Geeske Langejans, the researchers discovered no fewer than three different ways to extract tar from birch bark. For the simplest method, all that is needed is a roll of bark and an open fire. This enabled Neanderthals to produce the first glue as early as 200,000 years ago.

The researchers made this surprising discovery by setting to work with only the tools and materials that Neanderthals possessed. They used experimental archaeology because the preservation of ancient adhesives is incredibly rare and there is no direct archaeological evidence about how tar was made during the Palaeolithic. In situations like this, experimental archaeology provides a window into the past that would not otherwise exist.

'In earlier experimental attempts, researchers only managed to extract small quantities of tar from birch bark, or they didn't get anything at all,' says Kozowyk. 'It was beleived that this was because the fire needed to be controlled to within a narrow temperature range. However, we discovered that there are more ways to produce tar, and that some work even with a significant temperature variation. So, precisely controlling the temperature of the fire is not as important as was initially thought.'

Kozowyk and his colleagues show that Neanderthals discovered tar production by combining existing knowledge and materials. Neandertals may have started with a simple method that required only fire and birch bark, and later adopted a more complex method to obtain higher yields of tar.

Neanderthals Not Less Intelligent than Modern Humans, Scientists Find

Researchers have concluded that Neanderthals were not the primitive knuckleheads they have been commonly portrayed to have been and there is no evidence that modern humans' mental superiority led to demise of Neanderthals. Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: “The view of Neanderthals as club-wielding brutes is one of the most enduring stereotypes in science, but researchers who trawled the archaeological evidence say the image has no basis whatsoever. They said scientists had fuelled the impression of Neanderthals being less than gifted in scores of theories that purport to explain why they died out while supposedly superior modern humans survived. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, April 30, 2014]

“Wil Roebroeks at Leiden University in the Netherlands said: "The connotation is generally negative. For instance, after incidents with the Dutch Ajax football hooligans about a week ago, one Dutch newspaper piece pleaded to make football stadiums off-limits for such 'Neanderthals'." |=|

“The reasons for the demise of the Neanderthals have long been debated in the scientific community, but many explanations assume that modern humans had a cognitive edge that manifested itself in more cooperative hunting, better weaponry and innovation, a broader diet, or other major advantages. |=|

“Roebroeks and his colleague, Dr Paola Villa at the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, trawled through the archaeological records to look for evidence of modern human superiority that underpinned nearly a dozen theories about the Neanderthals' demise and found that none of them stood up."The explanations make good stories, but the only problem is that there is no archaeology to back them up," said Roebroeks. |=|

“Villa said part of the misunderstanding had arisen because researchers compared Neanderthals with their successors, the modern humans who lived in the Upper Palaeolithic, rather than the humans who lived at the same time. That is like saying people in the 19th century were less intelligent than those in the 21st because they didn't have laptops and space travel. |=| "The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there," said Villa. "What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true." The study is published in the journal Plos One. |=|

“So what did kill off our equally intelligent extinct cousins? Roebroecks said that the reasons must have been complex, and that recent genetic studies that have decoded the Neanderthal genome might reveal some clues. Those studies show that Neanderthals lived in small, fragmented groups, and interbred to some extent with modern humans. Some of their inbred male offspring were infertile. The arrival of modern humans may simply have swamped and assimilated them. "Stereotypes help people to order their world, but the stereotype of the primitive Neanderthal is now gradually eroding, at least in scientific circles," said Roebroecks.” |=|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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