Neanderthals are Smarter than We Thought


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The term "Neanderthal" is quickly going out of style as a derogatory term to describing a simpler person: researchers and archaeologists have uncovered evidence that European Neanderthals were making bone tools thousands of years before the arrival of the modern humans who researchers previously believed were the origins of this knowledge.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences presented a paper that describes four bone fragments discovered in southwest France. The oldest of the four is dated at 51,000 years old while the others are between 42,000 and 47,000 years old.

Anthropological evidence of human toolmaking has led scientists in the past to conclude that Neanderthals did develop such tools, but that the knowledge to do so was imparted by homo sapiens. The archaeologists who conducted this study believe they have the first evidence of independent Neanderthal bone tool manufacture (most Neanderthal bone-made tools are knockoffs of stone designs).

One of the archaeologists on-site, Shannon P. McPherron, claims that many other Neanderthal sites probably contain similar tools, but that finding them would be difficult because the tools were probably used until their tips were worn down or broke: "It's like looking at pencil leads... Once you sort of get the pattern, it's a lot easier to spot them."

Because the tools discovered are lissoirs, or stones used to tan and polish hides, McPherron says a distinct possibility now exists that Neanderthals showed this technology to Homo sapiens, but most researchers would probably argue that point. McPherron admits he and his team were unable to rule out the possibility that Neanderthals adopted the technology from humans.

Regardless of the excitement, Professor Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser of Mainz University would caution that the evidence seems too thin to draw conclusions about the interactions between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. "...To make statements about the transition or the interaction between Neanderthals and modern humans is really, well, you really have to stretch the evidence very far to get to this conclusion," she said, in spite of her lack of involvement with the excavations.

Main image courtesy the Abri-Peyrony Project.