Crafty Neanderthals Made String, More Evidence for Their Intelligence
Sometime between 41,000–52,000 years ago an innovative person took some fibers, twisted them together, and put them with a thin stone tool. Their creation may have been a handle, net, or bag for the tool. This is the oldest known direct evidence of someone using fibers to create string. You may be surprised to know that the prehistoric craftsperson wasn’t a modern human – it was a Neanderthal living in the area of what is now France. So here we have more evidence for Neanderthal intelligence.
Study author Professor Bruce Hardy told Ancient Origins how it felt making the discovery:
Based on single twisted fibers that we had seen on tools from the site in the past, we suspected that Neanderthals were making string and rope. As soon as I saw this fragment, I knew that we had the smoking gun. I also knew that this would be a huge step in our understanding of Neanderthals and helped demonstrate that they were not so different from us. It was definitely a fist-pump kind of moment.
Finding the Fibers
Perishable materials are generally the most common but hardest to find in the archaeological record. When we’re talking about the European Middle Paleolithic period (30,000–300,000 years ago), archaeologists generally expect they’re going to be able to find durable bone and stone artifacts, not a six-millimeter-long cord fragment that consists of three bundles of fibers twisted together into prehistoric yarn .
The remarkable artifact was discovered by the site’s director of excavations in situ attached to the underside of a 60-millimeter-long (2.36 inches), Levallois flake tool at Abri du Maras, France . Although there is the possibility that the yarn was made in relation to the stone flake, the researchers also acknowledge that the cord may have been under and not necessarily linked to the stone when it was buried.
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Levallois flake with the adhering cord fragment. (M.-H. Moncel/ CC BY 4.0 )
Abri du Maras is an archaeological site located in a valley near the Ardèche River. Researchers have been excavating Middle Paleolithic era finds at the site since 2006. They have found that the older occupations of the site were under a large cave roof, which is now collapsed, and the younger occupation of the site took place in a rock shelter.
Bruce Hardy of Kenyon College in Ohio, USA, and his colleagues state that this is “the oldest known direct evidence of fibre technology — using natural fibres to create yarn.” But Professor Hardy also told Ancient Origins that the discovery was not unexpected, it was just waiting to happen:
The site of Maras has extensive middle Paleolithic deposits that date from about 40,000 to over 90,000 years ago. We had already made significant finds at the site that showed that Neanderthals were exploiting plants and fish and small game. This is something they are not typically credited with and goes counter to the dimwitted Neanderthal stereotype. The evidence for fiber technology is even more significant in terms of understanding Neanderthal cognition.
Excavation of Abri du Maras. (Credit: M-H. Moncel)
Work will continue at the site, and Professor Hardy told Ancient Origins he expects more important discoveries in the future:
The excavations at Maras are ongoing. At this point we are moving into the older levels that are about 90,000 years old. I suspect we will see many of the same behaviors such as fiber technology, also represented in these earlier levels. I suspect that we are underestimating our ancestors, and that sophisticated technological behaviors are much older than we thought.
Unravelling Misunderstandings of Neanderthal Intelligence
By using spectroscopy and reflected light microscopy, they discovered the cord fragment fibers probably came from the inner bark of a conifer tree, possibly a pine tree. The researchers reported on their findings in Scientific Reports today. By studying the photomicrographs, they found the “morphology of the cord fragment closely resembles replica cords produced in modern materials.”
Top: SEM photo of Neanderthal cord from Abri du Maras. (Credit: M-H. Moncel) Bottom: Close-up of modern flax cordage showing twisted fibre construction. (Credit: S. Deryck)
In the article they explain that producing this type of cord would have required some higher cognitive abilities, such as knowledge about the growth and seasonality of the trees to known when the best time would be to take fibers from them.
Furthermore, they write in their paper that the cord creator needed “context sensitive operational memory” and an understanding of “the use of complex multi-component technology as well as a mathematical understanding of pairs, sets, and numbers” to create the yarn and turn it into three-ply cord.
Professor Hardy also has had his students test out the process of making a similar type of string, and he told Ancient Origins what he found with this piece of experimental archaeology:
The fiber is made from the inner bark of a conifer or evergreen tree. In order to get this fiber, you have to strip the outer bark off a tree to scrape off the inner bark. This is best done in spring or early summer. Often, these fibers are soaked in water for a period of time before being broken down into individual fibers. At this point they can be twisted into string or rope. This part of the process would be difficult for us today. From what I've observed with my students, they can generally twist fibers into cord, although the process is very slow and the results aren't very pretty.
Modern cordage made from grass. Twisted fibers can form the basis of rope, nets, fabric, and clothing. (Credit: B. Hardy)
It’s also worth pondering a moment on the researchers’ notion that “As the structure becomes more complex (multiple cords twisted to form a rope, ropes interlaced to form knots), it demonstrates an “infinite use of finite means” and requires a cognitive complexity similar to that required by human language.” When Professor Hardy was asked to expand on his perspective on Neanderthal language ability, he told us:
The cord, and fiber technology in general, is an example of an infinite use of finite means. You start by twisting a set of fibers into a strand of yarn. Multiple yarns are twisted to form a court, multiple courts to form a rope, etc. We cannot make a rope without the preceding steps. In that way fiber technology is very similar to the language. We can't have a sentence without words, we can't have words without sounds that convey meaning. Thus, the cognitive abilities for making string and rope are very similar to those for making language. This speaks to the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals.
Given the complexity of navigating their world, cooperative hunting and logistical planning to access resources across the landscape, they must have had language. Beyond this, they were interbreeding with early modern humans and it seems a far stretch to imagine interbreeding with a group who could not effectively communicate.
Comparison of faces of Homo sapiens and Neanderthal. (Daniela Hitzemann/ Stefan Scheer/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Once people had figured out how to make string, all sorts of possibilities opened up for them. If they wanted, they could twist fibers into rope, bags, nets, mats, textiles for clothing, baskets, maybe even to make a boat! As the researchers write in their paper, once they had discovered how to twist the fibers, for the Neanderthals, this technology “would have become an indispensable part of daily life.”
Significance of the Discovery of Neanderthal String
In their paper, the archaeologists note that the earliest indirect evidence we have for string making is a collection of shell beads which may have been strung or tied to clothing 115,000 years ago. These were found at Cueva Anton in Murcia, Spain.
Following the recent discovery from Abri du Maras, the now second oldest known true fiber fragments come from Ohalo II site in Israel and only date back to around 19,000 years ago. That means this new discovery pushes the use of fiber technology back by over 20,000 years.
This finding also adds to our understanding of the cognitive abilities and creativity of Neanderthals in the Middle Paleolithic period. As the researchers say, their study demonstrates “the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals may have been more similar to those of modern humans than previously thought.” In fact, they write in the paper that “Given the ongoing revelations of Neanderthal art and technology it is difficult to see how we can regard Neanderthals as anything other than the cognitive equals of modern humans.”
Perhaps not everyone will agree with that statement, but it’s something worth thinking about.
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Neanderthals were Smarter than Some People Think
This discovery adds to the ever-growing body of evidence that Neanderthals were more cognitively advanced and similar to modern humans than was once believed. As Professor Hardy has already made evident, Ignacio Martinez, a professor of paleontology at the University of Alcala de Henares, has also declared the need to re-think the stereotype of Neanderthals:
Neanderthals were really smart; they were not super chimpanzees, as was thought for years. They talked and adorned themselves, now we also know that they had encephalization. In science it is very difficult to put forward a theory with just one case, you need to do comparative research, and our species is difficult to address if it is the only one of its kind. Now, with Neanderthals, we have a ‘ mirror species’ , another intelligent species that originated independently of ours, and this helps us to study ourselves.
We’ve found that they may have taught modern humans how to make tools , performed death rituals and had other symbolic behaviors , could sew , mastered fire , and they may have even built boats so it wouldn’t be far-fetched to add crafting some string to the Neanderthal skill list.
The full report is published by Nature, DOI: doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-61839-w
Top Image: Left; Close-up of modern flax cordage showing twisted fiber construction. Right; modern representation of a Neanderthal. The complex process of making yarn is more evidence of Neanderthal intelligence. Source: Left; S. Deryck, Right; procy_ab /Adobe Stock