Neanderthals May Have Made First Specialized Bone Tools
September 21, 2013

Neanderthals May Have Made First Specialized Bone Tools

April Flowers for – Your Universe Online

Sorting through tiny bone remnants in the University of California, Davis paleoanthropology lab in 2011, undergraduate student Naomi Martisius discovered a peculiar piece.

The fragment she found was from a French archaeological site, and it turned out to be a part of an early, specialized bone tool used by a Neanderthal before the first modern humans appeared in Europe.

"At the time, I had no idea about the impact of my discovery," said Martisius.

A decade of excavation by two international teams provided Martisius with her opportunity. Their findings, and hers, have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Previously these types of bone tools have only been associated with modern humans," said Teresa E. Steele, associate professor of anthropology at UC Davis, who also served as adviser to Martisius at UC Davis and at archaeological excavations in France.

"However, our identification of these pieces in secure Neanderthal contexts leaves open the possibility that we have found, for the first time, evidence that Neanderthals may have influenced the technology of modern humans," she said.

The tools were made about 50,000 years ago by Neanderthals to smooth tough animal hides. Earlier researchers had theorized that such tools were only made by the modern humans that came after Neanderthals. Leatherworkers today still use similar tools to smooth and refine leather into high-end purses and jackets.

These particular tools were found in deposits of stone tools typical of Neanderthal settlements and the bones of hunted animals including reindeer, red deer and bison. Of the four pieces Martisius identified, three were from the site of Abri Peyrony, France. The researchers at that site sent the animal bones to Steele's lab at UC Davis where Martisius studied the material.

Martisius, now in her second year of doctoral studies at UC Davis, will continue her research on these bone tools where she will be conducting experimental studies to manufacture and use new, similar animal bone tools for comparison.

The Neanderthal tools will be examined using sophisticated imaging techniques to compare them with the ones first made by the first modern humans in Europe and the ones Martisius will manufacture at UC Davis. She also plans to look at animal bones from nearby sites to see if she can identify additional pieces made by Neanderthals.

The archaeological sites in France where these tools were discovered have been explored for over 100 years, but modern archaeological techniques enabled researchers to recognize these smaller artifacts now identified as pieces of once-sophisticated tools, Steele said.