Handle of one of the wooden tools from the Poggetti Vecchi site.

171,000-Year-Old Fire Forged Tool Discovered Beneath a Giant Elephant

171,000 years ago, in Tuscany, a set of ancient tools were crafted and forged with fire.

Archaeologists in Florence, Italy, made an incredible discovery during construction work at Poggetti Vecchi. A paper published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  (PNAS), details the discovery of “fragmented wooden and stone tools, together with the fossilized bones of the straight-tusked elephant ( Paleoloxodon antiquus )…radiometrically dated to about 171,000 years old.”

Ancient Engineering

The team of archaeologists led by Bianca Maria Aranguren from the Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo, told reporters at Haaretz this week that the wooden tools “were crafted from a heavy and dense wood known as boxwood ( Buxus sempervirens ).” With bulbous handles at one end and blunt points at the other, the tools are about a meter-long and are believed to have been digging implements.

Excavation site at Poggetti Vecchi, Italy, where the implements were found.

Excavation site at Poggetti Vecchi, Italy, where the implements were found. (Image: PNAS)

Grooves and charring on the shafts inform archaeologists that stone tools must have been used to scrape bark off the branches, and then to shape them. The PNAS paper revealed that microanalysis on the charring suggests fire had been “deliberately and carefully applied in the manufacturing process.” This supports archaeologists postulations that our cousins, the Neanderthals, exploited fire to make scraping and shaping branches easier.

New Insights

Cosmos Magazine reported this week that the discovery of the charred tools is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it tells us that Neanderthals had learned to control fire, to some extent. But more importantly, while wood is known to have been used extensively throughout prehistory it has a tendency to rot away. “Poggetti Vecchi offers the earliest evidence of pyrotechnology in the fabrication of wooden tools, providing us with significant insight into the behavior and abilities of early Neanderthals toward human modernity,” said the archaeologists.

But can we be sure the craftsmen, or women, who made these tools were indeed Neanderthal?

The Toolmakers

The Supervisor of Archaeology for Tuscany, Biancamaria Aranguren, stated “the only known hominins in Europe at the time were Neanderthals”. And, Prof. Erella Hovers of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an expert on Neanderthals, said “Neanderthals are indeed the only known humans in Europe 170,000 years ago, based on the evidence of skeletal remains found so far.” However, it should be considered that both of these claims might be liable to future review considering the recent discovery of a modern jawbone found in Israel , dated to between 177,000 and 194,000 years old.

Contrary to the claims of Aranguren and Hovers, the jaw bone suggests Homo sapiens evolved much earlier than was previously thought - at least 300,000 years ago, and spread out of Africa around 200,000 years ago. Although Europe was dominated by Neanderthals at that time, it would have been more balanced to have said “the manufacturers ‘were most probably’ Neanderthals, but they might have been sapiens, or even another hominin.”

Reconstruction of Neanderthals burying an individual in a cave. National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, USA.

Reconstruction of Neanderthals burying an individual in a cave. National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, USA. (Ricardo Giaviti/ CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Looking closer at the discovery, ancient wooden weapons, tools and devices are normally degraded by bacteria and fungi, but these tools were “preserved by the humid paleoenvironmental conditions,” Aranguren explained. The wood was found together with, and under, bones from the extinct straight-tusked elephant  Palaeoloxodon antiques which faced extinction 30,000 years ago. Aranguren continued: "the morphometric characteristics of the Poggetti Vecchi wooden tools (rounded handles, blunt points and dimensions) recall those of the so-called 'digging sticks,' multipurpose tools which are used not only for gathering plants (roots and tubers) and as a pestle, but also for hunting small game, especially burrowing animals, and as a club. They are not spears because they didn't have sharpened points, are too short, and are not balanced for throwing.”

A tusk of a straight-tusked elephant was also found.

A tusk of a straight-tusked elephant was also found. (Image: PNAS)

What Aranguren basically means is, if you threw one of these sticks at an animal and nailed it, there was a lot of luck involved, indicating these sticks were used for other purposes - most probably digging.

All Important Fire Use

The charring adds data to our understanding of life on Earth around 200,000 years ago by providing evidence that Neanderthals, or sapiens, or other hominins, could exploit fire, and did so to enhance the durability and effectivity of their survival tools. Whether fire could be ingnited at will, is another question. Archaeologists generally agree that when Poggetti Man lived, during the Middle Pleistocene, brushfires ignited by lightning were used, but Aranguren explained to Haaretz this week that the question as to ‘ whenfire-making technology developed is highly controversial: "Poggetti Vecchi, that dates to the final Middle Pleistocene, offers the earliest evidence of the use of fire to work wooden implements," Aranguren affirmed. "We know that to make digging sticks, Neanderthals needed to have the knowledge and ability to contain, feed, and extinguish fire; we cannot say with certainty that they had also the knowledge and technology necessary to create fire at will.”

In the discovery of these digging sticks we are offered an insight into how early species on Earth integrated with the planet. In school, I was shown images of half-human, half-ape hunters, jumping all over big-fauna with spears. What these violent, archaic interpretations of the “Stone Age” failed to convey was a sense of the knowledge and rich understanding of the ever changing, wild and unpredictable outdoor environments. When and where to meet herding animals, how to get off shore to catch shoaling fish and how to tell if a mushroom was edible, were all matters of life and death! Of course, selecting the hardest wood to make the strongest digging sticks was essential, because so often it must have been said by weary hunters “folks, they got away, so we’re on roots this winter again, get digging!”

Top image: Handle of one of the wooden tools from the Poggetti Vecchi site. (Source : PNAS )

By Ashley Cowie

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