Oldest ever piece of string was made by Neanderthals 50,000 years ago

By Michael Le Page

A piece of 50,000-year-old string found in a cave in France is the oldest ever discovered. It suggests that Neanderthals knew how to twist fibres together to make cords – and, if so, they might have been able to craft ropes, clothes, bags and nets.

“None can be done without that initial step,” says Bruce Hardy at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. “Twisted fibres are a foundational technology.”

His team has been excavating the Abri du Maras caves in south-east France where Neanderthals lived for long periods. Three metres below today’s surface, in a layer that is between 52,000 and 41,000 years old, it found a stone flake, a sharp piece of rock used as an early stone tool.

Examining the flake under a microscope revealed that a tiny piece of string (pictured top right), just 6 millimetres long and 0.5 millimetres wide, was stuck to its underside. It was made by twisting a bundle of fibres in an anticlockwise direction, known as an S-twist. Three bundles were twisted together in a clockwise direction – a Z-twist – to make a 3-ply cord.

“It is exactly what you would see if you picked up a piece of string today,” says Hardy. The string wasn’t necessarily used to attach the stone tool to a handle. It could have been part of a bag or net, the team speculates.

The string appears to be made of bast fibres from the bark of conifer trees, which helps establish that it isn’t a stray bit of modern string, because “nobody at the site was wearing their conifer pants at the time”, says Hardy.

“It’s so fine. That’s really surprising,” says Rebecca Wragg Sykes at the University of Bordeaux in France. This suggests the string wasn’t used for heavy-duty tasks, but instead as some kind of thread, she says.

Before this find, the oldest known string came from 19,000 years ago. This was discovered in the Ohalo II site near the Sea of Galilee, Israel, and is associated with modern humans. But Hardy says the newly found string was made by Neanderthals, as there were no modern humans in this part of Europe at this time.

This raises the question of whether modern humans learned some of their skills from Neanderthals, says Wragg Sykes.

Hardy thinks the string shows that Neanderthals were as smart as us. They were very similar to us, says Emma Pomeroy at the University of Cambridge, whose team has found evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead. “Neanderthals engaged in complex behaviours that we thought they weren’t capable of ,” she says.

Journal reference: Scientific reports, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-61839-w

Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2240117-oldest-ever-piece-of-string-was-made-by-neanderthals-50000-years-ago/#ixzz6JDzTgR5Y

New Evidence Suggests Neanderthals Were Capable of Starting Fires

Artist’s depiction of Neanderthals around a fire.
Illustration: James Ives

by George Dvorsky

Neanderthals were regular users of fire, but archaeologists aren’t certain if these extinct hominins were capable of starting their own fires or if they sourced their flames from natural sources. New geochemical evidence suggests Neanderthals did in fact possess the cultural capacity to spark their own Paleolithic barbecues.

At some point, our ancestors harnessed the power of the flame to keep warm, cook food, produce new materials, shoo away predators, and illuminate dark caves. And of course, it provided a classic social setting, namely the campfire circle.

Archaeological evidence suggests hominins of various types were using fire as far back as 1.5 million years ago, but no one really knows how they acquired that fire. This paradigm-shifting ability—to both intentionally start and control fire—is known as pyrotechnology, and it’s traditionally thought to be the exclusive domain of our species, Homo sapiens.

But as new evidence presented this week in Scientific Reports suggests, Neanderthals did possess the capacity to start their own fires. Using hydrocarbon and isotopic evidence, researchers from the University of Connecticut showed that certain fire-using Neanderthals had poor access to wildfires, so the only possible way for them to acquire it was by starting it themselves.

“Fire was presumed to be the domain of Homo sapiens but now we know that other ancient humans like Neanderthals could create it,” said Daniel Adler, a co-author of the new study and an associate professor in anthropology at the University of Connecticut, in a press release. “So perhaps we are not so special after all.”

We know Neanderthals and other hominins used fire based on archaeological evidence like the remnants of fire pits and charred animal bones. But evidence also exists to show that Neanderthals had the requisite materials for sparking fires, namely blocks of manganese dioxide (scrapings from this material can assist with fire production, as it can be set alight at lower temperatures compared to other materials). That said, competing evidence from France has linked Neanderthal fire use to warmer periods, when forests are dense with flammable material and when the odds of lightning strikes are higher—important factors for determining the likelihood of wildfires. This and other evidence has been used to claim that Neanderthals weren’t pyrotechnologically capable, as it was easy for them to grab flames from burning bushes.

For the new study, Adler and his colleagues sought to test this hypothesis, that is, to determine if fire use among Neanderthals could indeed be correlated with the occurrence of natural wildfires.

A critical component of this research is a molecule called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are released when organic materials are burned, and they can provide a record of fire over geological timescales. They also come in two varieties: light and heavy. The light kind, lPAHs, can travel vast distances, while the heavy kind, hPAHs, remain localized. For the study, the researchers analyzed lPHAs found inside Lusakert Cave 1 in Armenia—a known Neanderthal cave—as evidence of fire use, and hPHAs found outside the cave as evidence of wildfires. The scientists also looked at isotopic data taken from fossilized plants, specifically from the wax found on leaves, to determine what the climatic conditions were like at the time.

A total of 18 sedimentary layers from Lusakert Cave 1 were analyzed, a time period spanning 60,000 to 40,000 years ago. The hHPAs in these layers, along with other archaeological data, pointed to extensive use of fires by Neanderthals in this cave. During the same time period, however, wildfires outside of the cave were rare. What’s more, the isotopic data didn’t point to anything particularly unusual in terms of fire-friendly environmental conditions, such as excessive aridity. This led the authors to “reject the hypothesis” that fire use among Neanderthals was “predicated on its natural occurrence in the regional environment,” according to the paper. If anything, the new evidence points to the “habitual use” of fire by Neanderthals “during periods of low wildfire frequency,” wrote the authors in the study.

Chemist and co-author Alex Brittingham described it this way in the press release: “It seems they were able to control fire outside of the natural availability of wildfires.”

A challenge facing the researchers was to take all this data and keep it within the same time frame.

“In an archaeological context like we find at Lusakert Cave, we are forced to answer all questions on longer timescales,” said Brittingham in an email to Gizmodo. “So all of the data that we present in this publication, whether it is the climate from the leaf waxes, fire data from PAHs, or data on human occupation from lithics, are time averaged. So, when we compare these independent datasets we compare them between different identified stratigraphic layers.”

Needless to say, this study presents indirect evidence in support of Neanderthal pyrotechnology, as opposed to direct evidence such as manganese dioxide blocks or other clues. More evidence will be needed to make a stronger case, but this latest effort is a good step in that direction.

Another potential limitation of this research is the possibility that the sedimentary materials moved around over the years, or became degraded or diluted through the processes of erosion.

“However, given the good preservation of other hydrocarbons at the site, we do not believe this is an issue,” Brittingham told Gizmodo.

That Neanderthals had the capacity to start fires isn’t a huge shocker. These hominins demonstrated the capacity for abstract thinking, as evidenced by their cave paintings. They also forged tools and manufactured their own glue, so they were quite creative and industrious. What’s more, they managed to eke out an existence across much of Eurasia for an impressive 360,000 years. Notions that they survived for so long without the ability to start fires or that their extinction was somehow tied to their lack of pyrotechnic ability seem to be the more far-fetched conclusions.


Listen to the Surprisingly Goofy Voice of a Neanderthal

by Molly McBride Jacobson

When we imagine Neanderthals, we typically picture them like much dirtier, hairier versions of ourselves. Imaginative depictions of Homo neanderthalensis usually mean fur pelts, cave paintings, heavy clubs, and grunting. Lots of grunting.

But maybe that’s wrong. In the BBC documentary Neanderthal: The Rebirth a team of scientists investigated Neanderthals’ skeletal remains to recreate how they moved and behaved. For this segment, the BBC employed renowned voice coach Patsy Rodenburg to examine a model of a Neanderthal’s vocal tract and theorize what their voice might have sounded like. It’s not at all what you thought it was. A short voice box, huge ribs, a wide nasal cavity, and a thick, heavy skull made for a sound that was… well, just watch.

Neanderthals Built Mysterious Stone Circles

Rings of stalagmites found in a cave in France suggest that our ancient relatives were surprisingly skilled builders.

By Nadia Drake

Once illuminated by the flickering fires of prehistoric builders, an array of mysterious stone circles hid in darkness for millennia, tucked into the recesses of a cave in France. Now, these ancient structures are again emerging from the shadows.

The strange rings are crafted from stalagmites and are roughly 176,000 years old, scientists reported in Nature. And if the rings were built by a bipedal species, as archaeologists suspect, then they could only be the work of Neanderthals, ancient human relatives that are proving to be much more “human” than anticipated.

“This discovery provides clear evidence that Neanderthals had fully human capabilities in the planning and the construction of ‘stone’ structures, and that some of them penetrated deep into caves, where artificial lighting would have been essential,” says paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London.

However, why Neanderthals ventured deep into the darkness and constructed such elaborate structures is an enigma, at least for now.

Sealed since the Pleistocene, Bruniquel Cave is located in southwest France, in a region littered with decorated caves and other Paleolithic sites. In 1990, spelunkers excavated its entrance and squeezed through, finding signs of long-vanished cave bears and other extinct megafauna just inside.

But the cave’s real treasure lay in a damp chamber more than 1,000 feet (330 meters) from the entrance. There, several large, layered ring-like structures protruded from the cave floor, the seemingly unmistakable craftwork of builders with a purpose.

“All visitors have noticed the presence of these structures, from the first speleologists,” says Jacques Jaubert of the University of Bordeaux, a coauthor of the study describing the finding.

It would take decades for scientists to begin deciphering the enigmatic circles, an endeavor slowed by restricted access to the cave and the untimely death of the archaeologist who began work on the site in the 1990s.

In 2013, Jaubert and his team were finally able to bring Bruniquel’s secrets into the light.

“The cave was very well preserved, with very few visits, almost none,” he says, noting that the site is on private property and is regulated by the French government. “The structures are spectacular and have virtually no equivalent for that period, and even for more recent periods.”

The mysterious structures are built from nearly 400 stalagmites—the cone-shaped rock formations that rise from cave floors as dripping, mineral-rich water accumulates over time.

Hewn to roughly the same length, some of the stalagmites were crafted into a large circular structure measuring nearly 22 feet (6.7 meters) across. Others were aligned in a smaller semicircle, and the rest were stacked in heaps.

Cracked areas of red and black discoloration indicate that fires had been lit atop the stalagmites, and charred bits of bone, including the burnt bone of a bear or large herbivore, were found near the smaller circle.

A 3D reconstruction of the structures in Bruniquel Cave.

Even to a trained eye, the scene looked like it could be the work of early modern humans, who first appeared in Europe about 40,000 years ago. But uranium dating of the stalagmites, as well as dates for a mineral cloak that had grown over them and the bone bits, revealed an age the team didn’t expect.

At around 176,000 years old, the structures vastly predate the arrival of Homo sapiens, not just by a smidge, but by more than 100,000 years.

“These must have been made by early Neanderthals, the only known human inhabitants of Europe at this time.” Stringer says.

Neanderthals thrived for 300,000 years, coexisting with and occasionally breeding with modern humans. Like us, they were big-brained and clever, with a mastery of fire. But scientists argue about how similar the two species really were, and debate whether Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thought and ritual behaviors.

Unlike us, Neanderthals didn’t survive, and the reasons why they vanished from the landscape some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago are still a source of contention.

Until now, anthropologists had thought it unlikely that Neanderthals had mastered the art of subterranean living, which is a bit trickier than traipsing around above ground. The Bruniquel cave could prove otherwise.

“The find is solid, and it is an important documentation of the advanced behaviors of the Neanderthals,” says paleoanthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis.

To craft those enormous stone rings, Jaubert and his colleagues argue, the cave’s occupants needed a reliable source of illumination, some kind of social organization, and the ability to conceive of and construct the patterns, which are made from more than two tons of stalagmites.

“This requires the mobilization of people who choose, who lead, who advise, manufacture—and with continuous light,” he says. “All this indicates a structured society.”

That’s one interpretation, but some scientists say it’s too soon to draw these kinds of conclusions about the site. To begin with, it’s not yet clear how widespread such complex behavior may have been among Neanderthals, or if the structures were built by one person or many.

“We don’t know how many people were involved, if the structures were done in one event or during several events, by one person or by several,” says anthropologist Marie Soressi of Leiden University. “I don’t know what to expect, because such a discovery is very unusual.”

Other scientists question the presumed human origin for the structures and instead suggest they could be the work of hibernating cave bears.

“Who in their right minds builds structures 300 meters underground inside of a cave? Seeking refuge in a cave is a way of avoiding having to make an artificial structure,” says paleoanthropologist John Shea of Stony Brook University. “When bears settle in for the winter hibernation, they push all kinds of litter to the side. This looks like a place where cave bears settled in for a nice nap over and over through time.”

But bear dens are generally smaller than the largest ring, Soressi says, and the animals don’t stack stalagmites so much as excavate hollows and brush things aside. Plus, Jaubert notes, “bears do not make fire.”

If the structures are indeed the work of Neanderthals and not cave bears, their purpose is still a mystery. No one knows what the Neanderthals might have been doing in that cave, or how long they used it. Jaubert and his colleagues refuse to speculate about the structures’ purpose until further work at the site tells more of the story.

In the meantime, it’s hard to resist wondering what our ancient relatives were doing deep inside that cavern, with their fire-lit rings of stone.

“The complex Bruniquel structures are well-dated to within a long cold glacial stage, and at that time the cave might have provided a temporary, more temperate refuge,” Stringer says.

“If there is still-buried debris from occupation, it would help us to determine whether this was a functional refuge or shelter, perhaps roofed using wood and skins, or something which had more symbolic or ritual significance.”