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Neanderthal making stone tools and weapons. Source: Farruska / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Neanderthal Alchemists Enhanced Weapons 70,000 Years-Ago

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New scientific studies are revealing how advanced Neanderthals really were before being exposed to modern humans and their superior hunting crafts. More than 16,000 butchered rabbit and hare bones recovered from a 70,000 year-old layer of France’s Pié Lombard rock shelter site have been examined by Maxime Pelletier and his team of scientists at the University of Oulu in Finland. According to a report in Cosmos Magazine  Dr. Pelletier said the bones represent at least 225 individual animals and that they were discovered in the same layer as “ Mousterian stone tools”.

Rabbit bones were recovered from the Neanderthal site. (pxhere/ Public Domain )

Until this new study it was generally thought that Neanderthals greatly hunted larger and slower-moving animals and that their diets were only supplemented with smaller game animals, but the bones from Pié Lombard rock shelter were found to have cut marks caused by the Mousterian tools and they also showed signs of having been roasted. Furthermore, most of the long limb bones had be stalled and stripped of marrow which told the researchers that the animals had “not” been taken to the shelter by other predators.

Dr. Pelletier’s team also noted that the bones of rabbit paws and tails were missing which they think indicates that the animal’s pelts may have been removed with feet and tail intact, and that it is doubtful Neanderthals ate the animal meat and left the fur unexploited.

130,000 Year-Old Neanderthal’s Symbols And Jewelry

Knowing Neanderthals actively hunted rabbits 70,000 years ago, let’s now put this in context, because this discovery is part of an ever-increasing chain of emerging links informing us about how this ancient species interacted with the natural world of animals and plants.

In August, Dr. Stewart Finlayson, director of natural history at the Gibraltar National Museum, demonstrated just how sophisticated Neanderthals were in an analysis of eagle bones found at sites across Europe and Asia. According to Science Mag , data gathered from bird bones found at 154 Neanderthal sites dating to as early as “130,000 years ago” showed that before they made contact with  Homo sapiens , Neanderthals across Eurasia were hunting golden eagles and using parts of their talons as items of jewelry or symbolic artifacts.

Possible Neanderthal jewelry from white-tailed eagle claw. (© 2015 Radovčić et al / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Anyone who has ever been fishing, shooting, or bow hunting knows how many hours are spent with no action whatsoever and even when an animal or fish appears the chances of taking it home are slim, and if it weren’t for those sandwiches and chocolate most modern hunters would starve. Now, imagine tackling these beasts with handmade wooden, bone, and stone tools ; where would you even begin? Well the answer to this question might have been answered in a new paper published yesterday and it is nothing you might have guessed - it’s sticky old tar!

Van Wingerden’s Tarry Discovery

According to an article published today in Technology Works , in 2016 amateur collector Willy van Wingerden was exploring the Zandmotor, an artificial beach in the Netherlands, and picked up a sharp edged flake of flint which was partly covered in a black tar. Mr. van Wingerden suspected the tar had been added as a secure handhold so that the flake’s sharp edge could be used as a scraper or blade.

Marcel Niekus, is an independent archaeologist in the Netherlands and he radiocarbon dated the tar to about 50,000 years old, long before the arrival of modern humans, and what this suggests is that Neanderthals could predict future requirements and accomplish complex, multistep tasks, over several days with significant planning.

Stone flint tools used by Neanderthals. (Sergkarman / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Co-author, Geeske Langejans, an archaeologist at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, said in the paper that the tar might have been an “essential element of Stone Age tool kits” and attempting to do as the Neanderthals did, the researchers caked birch bark in clay and fired it at 572°F–752°F (300°C–400°C) for hours producing thick black tar from the resin soaked bark. Then, the chemical composition of the impurities in the scientist tar compared to the ancient tar which confirmed that Neanderthals had indeed applied a similar procedure.

Neanderthal Alchemists Quest The Elements

Essentially, this new paper is evidence of a very ancient kind of alchemy, the primeval forerunner of chemistry focused on the transmutation of matter, birch bark into tar, for example. While the team of lab scientists had the luxury of ’controls’, including glass beakers with constant thicknesses, temperature dials, and heat resistant gloves, imagine doing all this outdoors with stone bowls on stick-fires! This beckons the questions: how many millennia before 70,000 BC were spent perfecting the art of tar production and how many thousands of knuckles must have been burned during the Neanderthal alchemists experimentations?

Neanderthals made tar from birch bark. (Jorre / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Speaking of the tar coated flint flake Dr. Langejans thinks it’s an “ugly little piece” and points to it not having been retouched or shaped suggesting adhesives were used “on a regular basis”. However, not everyone agrees with this idea, for example, Paola Villa, an archaeologist at University of Colorado in Boulder told Science Mag argues that a handful of tools from just three sites is too slim a sample set to suggest that Neanderthals used birch bark tar “routinely”.

Accepting this argument, the team of scientists hope that further tarry artifacts will be dredged up from the North Sea that might prove Neanderthal groups produced tar to assist hunting, routinely.

Top image: Neanderthal making stone tools and weapons. Source: Farruska / CC BY-SA 2.0 .

By Ashley Cowie

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