Archaeologists working in two Italian caves have discovered some of the earliest known examples of Neanderthals using an adhesive on their stone tools, a major technological breakthrough called «hafting«.
The new study, conducted by Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Boulder, shows that Neanderthals who lived in Europe between 55 to 40 thousand years, they traveled far from their caves to collect resin from pine trees and then use it to gluing stone tools to handles made of wood or bone.
The findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that Neanderthals were smarter than previously thought.
“We continue to find evidence that Neanderthals were neither primitive nor inferiorThey were capable of doing things that traditionally have only been attributed to modern humans, ”said Villa, author of the new study and adjunct curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Nature and History.
That insight, he added, came from a chance discovery in the Grotta del Fossellone and the Grotta di Sant’Agostino, two caves near the beaches of what is now the west coast of Italy.
Those caves were home to Neanderthals who lived in Europe during the Middle Paleolithic period., thousands of years before Homo sapiens set foot on the continent.
Archaeologists have discovered more than 1,000 stone tools at both sites, including pieces of flint that measure between 2 and 5 centimeters from end to end.
In a recent study of the tools, Villa and his colleagues they noticed a strange residue in just a handful of the flints, fragments of what appeared to be organic material.
"Sometimes that material is just an inorganic sediment, and other times it's the traces of the adhesive used to hold the tool in place," Villa said.
To find out, another author of this study, Ilaria Degano from the University of Pisa, performed a chemical analysis of 10 flints using a technique called gas chromatography / mass spectrometry.
The tests showed that the stone tools had been coated with resin from local pines. In one case, that resin had also been mixed with beeswax.
Villa explained that the Neanderthals in these caves not only used their own hands to use stone tools. At least in some cases, they also attached those tools to handles to give them a better grip when they sharpened wooden spears or performed other tasks, such as cutting meat or scraping leather.
"You need stone tools to cut tree branches and transform them for other uses," Villa said.
The find is not the oldest known example of glue use by Neanderthals in Europe: two scales discovered in the Campitello quarry, in central Italy, are previous. But it does suggest that this technique was more common than previously believed.
The existence of hafting also provides more evidence that Neanderthals could light fires whenever they wantedVilla said, something scientists have long debated.
Villa explained that pine resin dries when exposed to air and Neanderthals needed to heat it over fire to make an effective glue.
“This is one of several pieces of evidence that clearly indicates that Neanderthals were able to make fire when they needed it«Said Villa.
Researchers from the Paris Nanterre University in France, the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, the University of Wollongong in Australia, the Max Planck Institute in Germany, the Italian Umana Institute of Paleontology and the University of Pisa also participated in this study.
The research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation to Paola Villa and Sylvain Soriano.