Science

Tool-making experiments suggest Neanderthals may not have been as clever as thought

Tool-making experiments sugges...
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According to a study by the University of Tübingen and New York University (NYU), Neanderthals​ may not have been as clever as previously supposed. The experimental archaeology project found that a wood tar used by the cousins of Homo sapiens as a glue to construct tools didn't require as complex a process as once thought, suggesting that Neanderthal tool making isn't necessarily evidence of a high level of cognitive and cultural development.

One of the problems in understanding the past is how much technology has advanced over the millennia while leaving little or no record of how things used to be done. The result is that archaeologists often look at ancient people doing something extremely complicated like smelting metal or baking bread and then throwing up their hands in frustration as to figuring out how they did it.

It's for this reason that experimental archaeology was developed, where researchers look at old folk skills or try to reverse engineer an ancient technology. As a result, many seemingly impossible technological feats became understandable because the processes were simpler or used for a different purpose.

For example, experiments in how copper was first smelted started out by throwing chunks of malachite on a campfire and wondering why it wouldn't melt, to eventually discovering that the first copper had more to do with a happy accident when ancient potters used copper ores to paint their fired pots, only to find beads of metal in their kilns.

However, it's an approach that can also produce some blind alleys. One case in point, according to the Tübingen/NYU team, is that of Neanderthals and wood tar.

Making tar out of wood is a very well understood process that was practiced on an industrial scale until relatively recently and is still used today. But it's a very complex process that requires either vessels made out of metal or ceramics, or the construction of charcoal burners where wood is meticulously stacked, sealed under earth and clay, and then set alight, so the wood turns into charcoal in the absence of oxygen, and tar, pitch, and turpentine distill out.

This is one of the reasons why many scientists believe that Neanderthals were very advanced from an intellectual and cultural point of view. Studies of their tools showed that they used wood tar as glue to stick bits of flint to handles of wood or bone, so they must have been pretty hot stuff in the brain department to figure out how to make that tar.

But when researchers at the University of Tübingen, NYU's University's Department of Anthropology and the Tandon School of Engineering looked at the problem, they found that there was a simple way to get tar out of a raw material like birch bark. Instead of constructing a complex apparatus, the team took fresh or dead birch bark and burned it near flat river stones.

They found that after three hours, the stones were covered with a black, sticky mess – wood tar. This was easily scraped from the stones and analysis demonstrated that the tar was molecularly similar to that found on Neanderthal tools.

The team then used the tar to construct a test tool that a robot arm dragged with great precision across a test bed 170 times, yet it showed no signs of the adhesive bond weakening. In addition, they constructed a tool using the tar to attach a stone scraper to a wooden handle, which was then used to scrape the tough outer membrane from the thigh bone of a calf.

Because the stone method is so simple and could have been discovered by the Neanderthals so easily at any camp site, the study concluded that the presence of tar-glued tools is not an indicator of complex behavior or organization.

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Source: New York University

8 comments
Bert Goz
Neanderthals didn't destroy the planet , or overpopulate it , but WE are the smart ones?!! Maybe they worked out a symbiotic life style, without greed......the single worst human affliction!
Lawrence Stoskopf
So this guy without a PhD is sitting there looking at a rock with some black, sticky stuff and thinks, "Hey, I could use this to make...." Wouldn't it have been fun to have given this Hacker a GameBoy and watched? A pretty complex thought process from seeing this to making a working tool or so. Thanks for studying this.
Nobody
I am always intrigued by scientists who claim that our ancestors weren't all that smart. In a world before metals were discovered their building materials consisted of wood and stone. How many of these modern scientific geniuses could survive in that world? We still have no idea how Stonehenge, the pyramids, Chichen Itza or the intricately fitted walls in Peru were constructed. By then they may have had primitive copper tools but HOW did they do it? Even in Europe, the older the ruins, the larger the stones that were used to construct them. The more technology we have, the weaker we become and the fewer the number of people who understand it. We stand on the shoulders of giants and the cave men were those giants in more ways than we can imagine.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
This opens up a wide range of technology to look for.
Username
reversely, just because there's a simple way to make wood tar doesn't mean they weren't intelligent.
lisaloo
And with that, 70,000 Neanderthal spirits just experienced their first bummed high.
G.F. Brown
So, does this discovery that the present day scientists were wrong in their previous assessments of Neanderthal intelligence, prove that present day scientists are not as intelligent as they once considered themselves?
Tony Bertrand
Funny to read the conclusion by these scientists... Don't they know that this discovery is exactly the opposite of what they are claiming. Being able to do some, now, complex extraction in a very simple way is a proof of highly superior mind, watching nature and understanding the process the natural way. This discovery simply proves that Neanderthals were even smarter than these scientists thought. Period.