Spin me right round

Discovery of Neanderthal material culture gives crucial insight into their minds

The discovery "was definitely a fist bump kind of moment."

The unfortunate truth about modern human society is that our material culture is composed of (mostly) perishable materials. And that means some of the details about our society may one day be lost to history entirely.

What we eat and what we wear are of considerable importance to us — but they will erode with time. It’s a problem that scientists are dealing with now when it comes to ancient humans: Most of what we know about them comes down to old bones and stone.

That’s what makes this new discovery all the more remarkable.

Scientists discovered a 6-millimeter-long cord fragment, made from three bundles of fibers twisted together, at an excavation site in the south-east of France.

The tiny piece of twine is between 41,000 to 52,000 years old — and was used by Neanderthals. It is the oldest evidence of spinning yarn from natural fibers, and early evidence that Neanderthals, like us, enjoyed a material culture.

The incredible finding was revealed in a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

This cord is not just a cord — It implies Neanderthals were capable of building advanced tools needed for a complex daily life — bags to carry, nets to fish, snares to trap, and baskets to store.

The fibers are derived from bark, suggesting Neanderthals understood the growth and seasonality of conifer trees.

It also hints that Neanderthals had an understanding of math.

Bruce Hardy, an anthropology professor at Kenyon College, was part of the team that discovered the cord. He tells Inverse they suspected Neanderthals were making string and rope —  fragments of twisted fibers had been found on tools discovered at the site in the past.

But this fragment is "the smoking gun," Hardy says.

“It was definitely a fist bump kind of moment,” he adds.

SEM photo of the Neanderthal cord.

M-H. Moncel

The discovery is “a huge step” forward in our understanding of the Neanderthals, he says.

It proves they were not so different from us, Hardy says, and, contrary to past consensus, likely very intelligent. The assumption that they were inferior to us is slowly eroding because of discoveries like this cord.

The cord is “an example of an infinite use of finite means,” Hardy says. Yarn is made by twisting fibers into a cord, or strand. Multiple yarns can be twisted to form a cord, and multiple cords can form a rope.

“Fiber technology is very similar to language,” he explains.

“We can’t have a sentence without words; we can’t have words without sounds that convey meaning," he says. "The cognitive abilities for making string and rope are very similar to those making language.”

The cord was found at a site called Abri du Maras. Scientists have been digging there since 2006. Aside from the yarn, the site has revealed extensive findings dating from about 40,000 to 90,000 years ago. We know that the Neanderthals who once lived there exploited plants, fish, and small game.

They not only survived there; they thrived and innovated for themselves, Hardy says. That “goes to counter the dimwitted Neanderthal stereotype," he says.

Excavation of Abri du Maras.

M-H Moncel

Scientists don't know what this cord was used for. It was found on top of a thin, stone flake tool, but they can't tell if it was a part of the tool. Perhaps it was the handle, but it may also have been a part of a net or a bag containing the tool. There’s just not enough evidence to say either way.

Fiber technology was likely indispensable to the Neanderthal, the scientists believe, and incorporated into everyday life. Ropes and baskets are central to modern-day human societies — the same may have been true for Neanderthals.

The finding also indicates Neanderthal understood at least some basic mathematical concepts. Pairs and sets of numbers have to be combined in different ways to turn fibers into yarns and yarns into cords, Hardy says. This cord is made from three-strand fibers. To make it, the Neanderthals had to discover, and then adapt, the knowledge that a set of three produces a stronger cord than just two.

Excavations at Abri du Maras are ongoing. The team is now examining levels of the earth that are 90,000-years-old — where Hardy expects to find further examples of ancient behavior.

“I suspect that we have underestimated our ancestors, and that sophisticated technological behaviors are much older than we thought," he says.

Abstract: Neanderthals are often considered as less technologically advanced than modern humans. However, we typically only find faunal remains or stone tools at Paleolithic sites. Perishable materials, comprising the vast majority of material culture items, are typically missing. Individual twisted fibers on stone tools from the Abri du Maras led to the hypothesis of Neanderthal string production in the past, but conclusive evidence was lacking. Here we show direct evidence of fiber technology in the form of a 3-ply cord fragment made from inner bark fibers on a stone tool recovered in situ from the same site. Twisted fibers provide the basis for clothing, rope, bags, nets, mats, boats, etc. which, once discovered, would have become an indispensable part of daily life. Understanding and use of twisted fibers implies the use of complex multi-component technology as well as a mathematical understanding of pairs, sets, and numbers. Added to recent evidence of birch bark tar, art, and shell beads, the idea that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to modern humans is becoming increasingly untenable.
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