Neanderthal Tools Reveal ‘Cultural’ Differences

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

A new analysis from an archeologist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom has revealed distinct cultural differences between two groups of Neanderthals based on the divergent design of stone tools between 115,000 and 35,000 years ago. According to a study by researcher Karen Ruebens, the differences point to a more complex Neanderthal culture than what was previously suspected.

“In Germany and France there appears to be two separate handaxe traditions, with clear boundaries, indicating completely separate, independent developments,” Ruebens said. “The transition zone in Belgium and Northern France indicates contact between the different groups of Neanderthals, which is generally difficult to identify but has been much talked about, especially in relation to later contacts with groups of modern humans.”

“This area can be seen as a melting pot of ideas where mobile groups of Neanderthals, both from the eastern and western tradition, would pass by, influencing each other’s designs and leaving behind a more varied record of bifacial tools,” she added.

The study was published in the Journal of Human Evolution and describes how Neanderthals in the western region of northern Europe fashioned symmetrical, triangular and heart-shaped handaxes. In contrast, Neanderthals in the eastern region tended to make asymmetrical, bifacial knives.

“Distinct ways of making a handaxe were passed on from generation to generation and for long enough to become visible in the archaeological record,” Reubens said. “This indicates a strong mechanism of social learning within these two groups and says something about the stability and connectivity of the Neanderthal populations.”

“Making stone tools was not merely an opportunistic task,” she added. “A lot of time, effort and tradition were invested and these tools carry a certain amount of socio-cultural information, which does not contribute directly to their function.”

The study also indicated that available raw materials, location, and tool reuse did not influence handaxe design, strengthening the case that these designs were culturally driven.

“Principally, this study presents an archaeological contribution to behavioral concepts such as regionality, culture, social transmission and population dynamics,” Reubens wrote in her report. “It illustrates the interpretive potential of large-scale lithic studies, and more specifically the presence of regionalized cultural behavior amongst late Neanderthal groups in Western Europe.”

A study published last week revealed another feature of prehistoric European Neanderthals – they used bone tools to refine leather that are similar to the ones still in use today. Known as lissoirs, the tools are used to smooth out animal hides and make them water-resistant.

Found at sites in southwestern France, the tools were dated to between 51,000 and 41,000 years ago. To confirm speculation that the first bone fragment was indeed a leatherworking tool, researchers reached out to luxury-goods manufacturer Hermès in Paris.

“(We) showed them a picture, and they recognized it instantly,” study co-author Shannon McPherron, an archeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, told Nature Magazine.

Despite the encouraging confirmation, McPherron said his team did not immediately jump to any conclusions.

“You find one, and there’s always some doubt,” he said. “You’re worried that it’s not a pattern — that it’s anecdotal behavior.”

However, the team was able to back up their initial find with similar discoveries at other sites in the region, leading them to believe that the lissoirs were commonly used tools among Neanderthals.