How Neanderthals Made the Very First Glue 200,000-Years-Ago

How Neanderthals Made the Very First Glue 200,000-Years-Ago

The world's oldest known glue was made by Neanderthals. But how did they make it 200,000 years ago? Leiden archaeologists have discovered three possible ways and published their findings in Scientific Reports, 31 August.

A Neanderthal spear is predominantly made up of two parts, a piece of flint for the point, and a stick for the shaft. But one aspect is often overlooked, and has recently been puzzling archaeologists: the glue that fixes the point to the shaft. For this, Neanderthals used tar from birch bark, a material that researchers often assumed was complex and difficult to make.

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Replica of Neanderthal Spear construction (Credit: Diederik Pomstra)

Three Methods

Leiden archaeologists have now shown that this assumption was unfounded. Led by Paul Kozowyk and Geeske Langejans, the researchers discovered no fewer than three different ways to extract tar from birch bark. For the simplest method, all that is needed is a roll of bark and an open fire. This enabled Neanderthals to produce the first glue as early as 200,000 years ago.

Experimental Archaeology

The researchers made this surprising discovery by setting to work with only the tools and materials that Neanderthals possessed. They used experimental archaeology because the preservation of ancient adhesives is incredibly rare and there is no direct archaeological evidence about how tar was made during the Palaeolithic. In situations like this, experimental archaeology provides a window into the past that would not otherwise exist.

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Depiction of the increase in complexity of each method and the associated increase in tar yield and decrease in required temperature control. (Credit: P.Kozowyk et al)

Temperature Control

'In earlier experimental attempts, researchers only managed to extract small quantities of tar from birch bark, or they didn't get anything at all,' says Kozowyk. 'It was beleived that this was because the fire needed to be controlled to within a narrow temperature range. However, we discovered that there are more ways to produce tar, and that some work even with a significant temperature variation. So, precisely controlling the temperature of the fire is not as important as was initially thought.'

From Simple to Complex

Kozowyk and his colleagues show that Neanderthals discovered tar production by combining existing knowledge and materials. Neandertals may have started with a simple method that required only fire and birch bark, and later adopted a more complex method to obtain higher yields of tar.

(A) The larger of two tar lumps found at Königsaue (photo credit: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták) compared with ( B) the maximum yield of tar produced with the raised structure method (RS 7). (Credit: P.Kozowyk et al)


    President John Quincy Adams studied in Leiden. His father, John, who was also president, also stayed here and received a lot of support from professor and publisher Johan Luzac. And how are presidents Bush and Obama linked to Leiden?

    The Amsterdam media played a major role in the rise and fall of Dutch Brazil, the colony held briefly by the Dutch West India Company in the 17th century. This is the conclusion reached by Professor of Maritime History Michiel van Groesen in his book ‘Amsterdam’s Atlantic’.


    Experiments Show How Neanderthals Made the First Glue

    There are many technological breakthroughs that have dramatically impacted the course of human history: the discovery of fire, the wheel, Doritos-flavored taco shells. But one that doesn’t get much attention is the discovery of glue.

    Archaeological evidence shows that as far back as 200,000 years ago Neanderthals were using a tar-based adhesive to glue axe heads and spears to their handles. Now, reports Jen Viegas at Seeker, researchers have attempted to recreate the Neander-glue, which could help scientists figure out just how technologically sophisticated the species was.

    As George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports, archaeologists have found lumps of adhesive tar likely made from birch bark at Neanderthal sites in Italy and Germany. But just how they made the substance puzzled researchers, especially because they did it without the aid of ceramic pots, which were used by later cultures to produce large quantities of tar.

    That’s why a team from the University of Leiden decided to take a crack at making their own batch of Neanderthal tar. According to a press release, working with the resources available to Neanderthals, experimental archaeologists figured out ways to create useable amounts of tar from birch-bark—no sophisticated ceramic pots or controlled temperatures needed. They published their results in the journal Scientific Reports.

    As Viegas reports, the researchers tested three different methods. The first method is known as "ash mound," in which the scientists rolled birch bark into a tight bundle and then heaped ashes and embers over it, causing a tar to form. They then had to be scraped off the bark. A second method involved placing embers directly on a birch bark roll suspended over a pit, which also produced the tar.

    The third method was the most complicated. The researchers created a container constructed of birch bark and placed it in a pit. Then they covered the pit with with bark and dirt and lit a fire on top of the mound. While it took more time and fuel than the other methods, it also yielded more tar. As Dvorsky reports, even the more simple experiments yielded useful amounts of tar in quantities greater than any found at Neanderthal excavation sites.

    “It’s possible that all three methods we tested, or even some different methods, were used depending on the needs or requirements at the time,” first author of the study Paul Kozowyk tells Viegas. It’s possible that the Neanderthals used the more complicated technique while building tools or weapons and relied on the simpler techniques when making repairs while hunting.

    The use of such technology adds to growing evidence that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than previously presented. Other studies have found they created jewelry, painted their bodies, produced cave art and even used toothpicks to treat aching teeth. There’s also evidence they ritually buried their dead and spoke like modern humans. All of this information paints a portrait of a species not too different from our own.

    “What this paper reinforces is that all of the humans that were around 50,000 to 150,000 years ago roughly, were culturally similar and equally capable of these levels of imagination, invention and technology,” Washington University anthropologist Erik Trinkaus, who was not involved in the study tells Dvorsky. Anthropologists have long assumed that their anatomy differed from modern humans their behavior did as well, he says.

    But that isn't necessarily the case. " What is emerging from the human fossil and Paleolithic archeological records across the Eurasia and Africa is that, at any one slice in time during this period, they were all doing—and capable of doing—basically the same things, whatever they looked like.”

    In fact, Viegas reports that evidence for modern humans producing and working with tar doesn’t appear until about 70,000 years ago, over 100,000 years after Nenderthals were using the stuff to help them take down mammoths.

    The lesson from this find: Don't get stuck on looks.

    About Jason Daley

    Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.


    How Neanderthals Made the Very First Glue 200,000-Years-Ago - History

    In an age when only natural chemicals were widely available, the environment supplied everything. Lean against the slightly injured bark of a conifer and you will discover the stickiness of sap, particularly of pine resin. Grind starchy plant material and add water, and you will discover the glutinous stickiness of starches. On and on the list of natural adhesives could go.

    Collagen-based glues:
    Land animals: hides and skins, tendons, cartilage, bones, teeth, antlers, and hooves (by-products of butchery and tanning)
    Fish: skin, bones, heads, swim-bladders (isinglass, ichtyocolle)

    Animal glues such as hide-glue are essentially unrefined gelatin, which can also be used as a binding agent in India ink (soot + glue). Gelatin was first used as an external surface sizing for paper in 1337 and continued as a dominant sizing agent of all European papers through the mid-19th century.

    Albumin-based glue:
    Egg yolk (tempura), serum albumin from blood

    Starch pastes:
    Wheatpaste (gluten proteins)

    Gums:
    Gum Arabic is collected from acacia trees, particularly Senegalia senegal.

    Senegalia senegal
    source of Gum Arabic

    Resin (pitch) is an oleo-resin obtained by tapping the resinous sap of pines and other conifers, or by dry distillation (heating) of the wood and roots of pine. Rosin results from the solidification of fresh liquid resin by heating to vaporize the volatile liquid terpene components.

    Other natural gums are derived from colloids in marine plants, though this source might not have been known in the Middle Ages: algin (brown seaweeds, particularly species of Ascophyllum, Durvillaea, Ecklonia, Laminaria, Lessonia, and Macrocystis)


    Resins, Tars, Natural Glues - Pine, Spruce, Birch - ID - anth >> .

    Chewing starchy plants to make glue: Ray Mears attaching fletching, Hadza.
    Open in new window: Ray Mears attaching fletching, Hadza.
    Links:


    New Experiment Reveals Secret Behind 200,000-Year-Old Neanderthal Glue

    Over a hundred thousand years ago, Neanderthals used tar to bind objects together, yet scientists have struggled to understand how these ancient humans, with their limited knowledge and resources, were able to produce this sticky substance. A new experiment reveals the likely technique used by Neanderthals, and how they converted tree bark into an ancient form of glue.

    Neanderthals were manufacturing their own adhesives as far back as 200,000 years ago, which is kind of mind blowing when you think about it. We typically think of fire, stone tools, and language as the “killer apps” of early human development, but the ability to glue stuff together was as much of a transformative technology as any of these.

    New research published in Scientific Reports reveals the startling ingenuity and intellectual capacities of Neanderthals, and the likely method used to cook up this ancient adhesive.

    Based on the archaeological evidence, we know that Neanderthals were manufacturing tar during the Middle Pleistocene Era. The oldest traces of this practice date back to a site in Italy during a time when only Neanderthals were present in Europe. Similar tar lumps and adhesive residues have also been found in Germany, the oldest of which dates back some 120,000 years ago. The Neanderthals used tar for hafting—the practice of attaching bones or stone to a wooden handle to create tools or weapons. It was a force multiplier in engineering, allowing these ancient humans to think outside the box and build completely new sets of tools.

    What makes the presence of tar at this early stage in history such a mystery, however, is that Neanderthals had figured out a way to make the useful goo thousands of years before the invention of ceramics, which by the time of the ancient Mesopotamians was being used to produce tar in vast quantities. For years, archaeologists have suspected that Neanderthals performed dry distillation of birch bark to synthesize tar, but the exact method remained a mystery—particularly owing to the absence of durable containers that could be used to cook the stuff up from base materials. Attempts by scientists to replicate the suspected Neanderthal process produced tar in miniscule amounts and far short of what would be required for hafting.

    To finally figure out how the Neanderthals did it, a research team led by Paul Kozowyk from Leiden University carried out a set of experiments. Tar is derived from the dry distillation of organic materials, typically birch bark or pine wood, so Kozowyk’s team sought to reproduce tar with these substances and the cooking methods likely at the disposal of the Neanderthals. It’s very likely that the Neanderthals stumbled upon the idea while sitting around the campfire.

    “A tightly rolled piece of birch bark simply left in a fire and removed when partially burned, once opened, will sometimes contain small traces of tar inside the roll along the burned edge,” explained the authors in the study. “Not enough to haft a tool, but enough to recognize a sticky substance.”

    With this in mind, the researchers applied three different methods, ranging from simple to complex, while recording the amount of fuel, materials, temperatures, and tar yield for each technique. Their results were compared to known archaeological relics to see if they were on the right (or wrong) track. By the end of the experiments, the researchers found that it was entirely possible to create tar in the required quantities using even the simplest method, which required minimal temperature control, an ash mound, and birch bark.

    “A simple bark roll in hot ashes can produce enough tar to haft a small tool, and repeating this process several times (simultaneously) can produce the quantities known from the archaeological record,” write the researchers. “Our experiments allowed us to develop a tentative framework on how the dry distillation of birch bark may have evolved, beginning with the recognition of small traces of birch bark tar in partially burned bark rolls.” They added: “Our results indicate that it is possible to obtain useful amounts of tar by combining materials and technology already in use by Neandertals.”

    Indeed, by repeating even the simplest process, the researchers were able to obtain 15.9 grams of useable tar in a single experiment, which is far more than any tar remains found in Middle Paleolithic sites. What’s more, temperature control doesn’t need to be as precise as previously thought, and a durable container, such as a ceramic container, is not required. That said, the process did require a certain amount of acumen for this process to come about, Neanderthals needed to recognize certain material properties, such as the degree of adhesiveness and viscosity. We’ll never be certain this is exactly what Neanderthals were doing, but it’s a possibility with important implications for early humans in general.

    “What this paper reinforces is that all of the humans that were around 50,000 to 150,000 years ago roughly, were culturally similar and equally capable of these levels of imagination, invention and technology,” explained Washington University anthropologist Erik Trinkaus, who wasn’t involved in the study, in an interview with Gizmodo. “Anthropologists have been confusing anatomy and behavior, making the inference that archaic anatomy equals archaic behavior, and ‘modern’ behavior [is equivalent to] modern human anatomy. What is emerging from the human fossil and Paleolithic archeological records across the Eurasia and Africa is that, at any one slice in time during this period, they were all doing—and capable of doing—basically the same things, whatever they looked like.”

    Sabrina Sholts, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History, says this study is a nice example of how experimental archaeology can be used to supplement the material record and address questions about past hominid behavior.

    “I think it’s certainly worthwhile to test methods of tar production that could have been used by Neanderthals and early modern humans, if only to challenge our assumptions about the kind of technologies—and ideas—within their reach,” she told Gizmodo.


    How Neanderthals made the very first glue

    The reasons they usually downplay the knowledge and skill of our ancestors is because they sit behind a desk and can't imagine someone that is not a modern contemporary human could be so intelligent. All the while ignoring the fact that the knowledge they have int heir heads is there because of all those that went before them doing the learning. The more we get these "academics" to get off their hind quarters and out to actually try to do these things, fail, try again, etc. to re-learn these lost skills, the less we will need to jump to explanations consisting of wild speculations.

    The simplest way they found surprised them, because of its simplicity.

    Quite correct, Australian peoples have been using Kangaroo leg sinew for "Ever".

    They also have made "Glue" forever.

    I wouldn't be surprised that they taught the Neanderthals how to make it.

    Ive always maintained, in my layman's knowledge. that Australian Aboriginies are Neanderthal descendants, mixed with Denisovan and whatever Asia Humans were around.

    They have always stated, that They were the first Humans on Earth. before they came, there were Giants. which they fought.

    Maybe the Australian first nations were the First Europeans after all?

    I think that's somewhat of an overstatement.
    All we have is evidence of holes being made in living skulls that later healed some.

    Why those holes were made is an assumption.

    I do not think people "downplay" our ancestors, but there is no evidence they manufactured and used glue. The scientists in the OP have been speculating that Neanderthals could make glue and they have shown how it could have been done. There is no evidence that they affixed flint to sticks with glue, thus making spears. If they did use glue, there is no evidence that it was derived in the way the scientists speculate.

    Most things about our ancestors are speculative because evidence is scant.

    Pine sap makes a good glue.
    Kind of iffy for affixing a spear tip you plan on killing a woolly mammoth with.

    But a great adhesive to affix the napped stone point to the shaft before wrapping in soaked sinew. Once the sinew begins to dry, it will shrink, and the glue will essentially make it a singe weapon system.

    I've done it myself as an experiment when I was a kid, and found it to be a LOT stronger than without. It also makes it easier to wrap the sinew as the napped spearhead doesn't move as much (it keeps it in place while you wrap). But, again, this was hands-on use, and finding how easy it was to do.

    But a great adhesive to affix the napped stone point to the shaft before wrapping in soaked sinew. Once the sinew begins to dry, it will shrink, and the glue will essentially make it a singe weapon system.

    I've done it myself as an experiment when I was a kid, and found it to be a LOT stronger than without. It also makes it easier to wrap the sinew as the napped spearhead doesn't move as much (it keeps it in place while you wrap). But, again, this was hands-on use, and finding how easy it was to do.


    I have a tomahawk with a head forged from a rail spike with a hickory handle. It chops, it pries, it slices. and it is a functional pipe. Best tool in my kit.
    A stick and a railroad spike with a hole drilled in it.

    I do not think people "downplay" our ancestors, but there is no evidence they manufactured and used glue. The scientists in the OP have been speculating that Neanderthals could make glue and they have shown how it could have been done. There is no evidence that they affixed flint to sticks with glue, thus making spears.
    Actually, there is such evidence.
    But the glue wasn't used to affix the point to the shaft. It was used to preserve the lashings holding the point and keep them tight.


    Evidence indicates that they successfully developed such a technique. The first discovery was made in 1963 at Kínigsaue, in then-East Germany. This was the site of an ancient lakeside hunting camp, from which Neanderthals had hunted now extinct Ice Age creatures such as mammoth and woolly rhino as well as red deer, horses, and reindeer. Two small, hardened lumps of black material were found during the dig, one bearing a fingerprint and the other the impression of a wooden haft or handle.

    In 2001, the lumps were dated to at least 40,000 years ago and were shown to have the chemical signature of birch bark pitch produced by the dry distillation process. Much older evidence was found at the Campitello quarry in central Italy. Here, the remains of an extinct elephant lay close to two large lumps of black pitch, which covered the end of two stone flakes crafted in a typical Neanderthal style. The Campitello find dates back over 200,000 years, a remarkably early origin for this complex process. A third Neanderthal site at Inden-Altdorf, overlooking the Inde River in Germany and dating to around 128,000 to 115,000 years ago, features more than 80 stone tools flecked with black material, but the chemical analysis indicating that this was distilled pitch requires further confirmation.

    There is another recent paper that describes how ochre is combined with plant resins and makes them set faster, in the 3-5 minute range.

    paraphi like harte posted, there is ample evidence that resins of various types were used in the hafting of lithics.
    And not just from neanderthal, but from historic and contemporary sources.
    Aboriginal australians used the resin from spinefex grass, as do people in south america.
    In my neck of the woods, it was pine or manzinita resin.
    Some people in coastal southern cal, used natural tar. They collected tar balls that washed ashore from offshore oil seeps.
    And the association between ochres and lithic hafting is well recognised.
    Just how it was done wasnt quite so well understood.
    Ive read that the ochre was ground to a powder then heated, and it forms a paste, almost like clay that is formed around what you need to fix in place.
    But the new work shows that the ochre works as a catalyst with the plant resin.

    Here's a batch i made earlier, (3 years ago) and still have. I keep it wrapped in grease proof paper in the fridge or it goes soft and flattens out in room temps. Simple to make. Pine sap, ground charwood and a small amount of animal fat to make it supple, The fat is what turns it from a brittle substance to a pliable substance. Just add heat when ready to use. Ideal for glueing Arrow heads, Fletchings, etc or for waterproofing anything from small birch bark water vessels to boots to canoes.


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    A separate study published this year, though, suggests it ain&rsquot necessarily so. All the Neanderthals would have needed was to put bark on a rock and slowly burn it, argued Patrick Schmidt of the University of Tübingen, Germany, and others, who did that very thing and produced lovely birch tar. That doesn&rsquot mean the Neanderthals weren&rsquot as smart as us marvels of evolution, but it means they didn&rsquot have to be in order to make birch tar.

    Resin dripping from natural wounds in a conifer tree. (c) Paul Kozowyk

    Now Kozowyk and Poulis are back with a new paper testing the properties of potential prehistoric glues &mdash and reached the conclusion that birch was best.

    The present paper isn&rsquot about the Neanderthal being bright as buttons or bird-brained brutes, or somewhere in the middle. But in the service of resolving the conundrum over Neanderthal smarts, Kozowyk and Poulis point out that little work had been done on the properties and qualities of prehistoric adhesive. And the more we know, the better equipped we are to assess the qualities of the makers.

    So the researchers tested the adhesive and physical properties of birch tar made using means available to Neanderthals, and concluded that among the resources available to the ancients it was the most suitable material possible for hafting.

    While they don&rsquot go there in their paper, their conclusion could shore up their original contention that Neanderthals were pretty advanced after all, based on their use of superior glue.

    Of course, it could be coincidence that the Neanderthals were using birch rather than pine resin. But it is also plausible that they were capable of forethought and planning, and developed expertise and knowledge of the resources available to them &mdash pine resin or birch tar.

    How is tar made from birch bark superior to pine? It is more versatile, has better working properties and is more reusable than pine resin, they write, based on tests of hardness, rheology (how it flows) and thermogravimetric analysis (how its mass changes when heated and cooled).

    It is plausible to speculate that the Neanderthals tried both: &ldquoAt least by 50,000 years ago they did,&rdquo Kozowyk tells Haaretz.

    Pine resin proved a trickier substance to handle than birch tar. Kozowyk and Poulis concluded that pine resin is more useful when mixed with beeswax, but in any case it is confined to a &ldquosweet spot&rdquo in which it is best usable. Birch bark tar was more versatile and less affected by overheating, or the cold. At one end of the temperature rainbow, rheological tests demonstrated that birch tar glues best in chilly ambient temperatures of 0 to 25 degrees Celsius, while pine resin-based adhesives became brittle in that temperature range.

    Birch tar also performed better at higher temperatures &mdash seriously high temperatures. After 30 minutes&rsquo exposure to 70 degrees Celsius (happily not an ambient average temperature anywhere yet), the rheological properties of the tar were pretty much unchanged, while resin-based glue stiffened. Meaning tar could be heated again and again without damaging it, unlike resin.

    Bottom line: As Paleolithic glues go, birch tar is more versatile, less delicate and generally more useful than pine resin, though that was used for hafting too &mdash much later, and elsewhere.

    Replica spear point hafted with birch bark tar beside a roll of birch bark and a piece of birch bark tar. Paul Kozowyk / Lab for Artefact

    It is plausible that, having tried both, the local Neanderthals living 191,000 years ago in Italy experimented with both and chose to invest in making birch bark tar.

    Using birch bark tar still doesn&rsquot prove the Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive properties, but it would lie on that side of the evidence.

    Light my own fire

    Other evidence for Neanderthal advancement in the Late Pleistocene remains just as intriguing, if still controversial. A recent paper postulated that Neanderthals knew not only how to use fire, but how to ignite it.

    The argument over their pyrotechnical capabilities, as opposed to helping themselves to burning bushes ignited by lightning, is indirect: In Armenia, the researchers report evidence of intensive fire use at a time not characterized by intense wildfires. Also arguing in favor of Neanderthal pyrotechnology, blocks of manganese dioxide &mdash which are thought to be prehistoric fire-starters &mdash have been found at some sites. But in France, in a separate study, intense fire use was correlated with a warmer time in which wildfires were apparently not rare. Anyway, the authors postulate that hominins learned how to light fires multiple times in different places during the Middle Pleistocene.

    So, conclusions there are none. But the new study fans the prehistoric fire by distinguishing that the Neanderthals may have been particular in their choice of adhesive. Why settle for lowly pine resin when one can make superglue &mdash the production of which does not necessarily require a prehistoric kiln, as once thought, but was not trivial?

    Kozowyk notes that tar could initially have been discovered (and rediscovered) simply by observing a partially burned roll of birch bark, which could have been used for starting fires, or, as Schmidt et al describe, by observing the black smoky residue collecting on rock or cave wall close beside the burning bark.

    Maybe that is indeed how it was initially discovered: a Neanderthal noticed sticky black goo on his fire-starter. That, however, wouldn&rsquot have produced much tar, Kozowyk points out: To make the quantities of tar found in Europe, they probably had a more efficient manufacturing method, not to mention the ability to design multicomponent tools &mdash and the capacity for forethought.


    Starting Fires to Unearth How Neanderthals Made Glue

    Some 200,000 years ago, Neanderthals used tar to attach handles to tools and weapons. Archaeologists performed experiments to show how they could have made this adhesive.

    Researchers created tar in experiments to show how Neanderthals might have made adhesives. Credit. Paul Kozowyk

    Neanderthals seem stuck with unflattering reputations. The entire species of early human ancestors has long been reduced to a pejorative for describing someone who isn’t very bright, despite growing evidence of the sophistication of Homo neanderthalensis. And recent research suggests another overlooked mark of their ingenuity: they made the first glues in the form of tar.

    Archaeologists first found tar-covered stones and black lumps at Neanderthal sites across Europe about two decades ago. The tar was distilled from the bark of birch trees some 200,000 years ago, and seemed to have been used for hafting, or attaching handles to stone tools and weapons. But scientists did not know how Neanderthals produced the dark, sticky substance, more than 100,000 years before Homo sapiens in Africa used tree resin and ocher adhesives.

    Now, in a study published last Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of archaeologists has used materials available during prehistoric times to demonstrate three possible ways Neanderthals could have deliberately made tar. While the study does not prove that Neanderthals used any of these methods, it aims to demonstrate that they had access to the ingredients and means to produce tar.

    Image

    “There’s this popular perspective of Neanderthals as being these simple cave men and slow-type brutes,” said Paul Kozowyk, a graduate student at Leiden University in the Netherlands and lead author of the study. “This tar production, and its use for hafting, is evidence that this isn’t really true.”

    Mr. Kozowyk and his colleagues spent several days burning birch wood to make tar using the different methods and after each one measured how much of the black stuff they collected.

    The team’s first strategy was known as the “ash mound” method, and it consisted of taking a piece of birch bark, rolling it up and then covering it with ash and glowing embers. Then after about 20 minutes they removed the bark and unrolled it to find drops of tar stuck in between the bark layers, which could be easily scooped out with a stick. As simple as the method was, it yielded only about a pea-sized amount of tar.

    The next method was the “pit roll”. They folded a piece of birch bark like a coffee filter — an impromptu bowl — and placed it in a hole in the ground about the size of a cup. Then they placed a tightly rolled piece of bark in it and covered it in embers. As the bark got hot it created tar that dripped into the birch container. After about 40 minutes the embers burned themselves out, producing about a large coin’s worth of tar.

    The last and most complicated method, the “raised structure”, was similar to the pit roll. They dug a hole and used folded bark as a container. But then they put a mesh of willow twigs over the container and rested rolled bark on top. Then they covered the structure in wet soil and clay, like an igloo that they smoothed into a dome. Finally, they built a campfire around the dirt dome, heating it like an oven. This strategy produced a staggering amount of tar, about 15 to 20 times more than the first method, but it took several hours.

    “They could have used any of these methods because everything that we used they had available,” said Geeske Langejans an archaeologist at Leiden University and a co-author on the study.

    Dr. Langejans said that understanding how Neanderthals produced the adhesive may contribute to a better understanding of their intellect.

    “You have bark but you end up with this black, sticky substance and the two seem completely unrelated,” she said, “so the general thinking is that it requires some abstract thought to make these connections.”

    Sabrina Sholts, a research anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, said in an email that the study was “a nice demonstration of how experimental archaeology can be used to test theories and address questions about the ancient past.” She added that the next steps would be to see if the researchers could actually haft tools with the tar they produced.

    Paul Pettitt an archaeologist from Durham University in England who was not involved in the study, said in an email that the experiments helped envisage how Neanderthals could have at first accidentally discovered tar in the remains of their fires, and then adapted the substance for tool use.

    “It’s an important demonstration of the ability of Neanderthals to observe, experiment and learn from their environments,” he said.


    How Neanderthals Made the Very First Glue 200,000-Years-Ago - History

    The world’s oldest known glue was made by Neanderthals. But how did they make it 200,000 years ago? Leiden archaeologists have discovered three possible ways. Publication in Scientific Reports, 31 August. A Neanderthal spear is predominantly made up of two parts, a piece of flint for the point, and a stick for the shaft. But one aspect is often overlooked, and has recently been puzzling archaeologists: the glue that fixes the point to the shaft. For this, Neanderthals used tar from birch bark, a material that researchers often assumed was complex and difficult to make.

    Leiden archaeologists have now shown that this assumption was unfounded. Led by Paul Kozowyk and Geeske Langejans, the researchers discovered no fewer than three different ways to extract tar from birch bark. For the simplest method, all that is needed is a roll of bark and an open fire. This enabled Neanderthals to produce the first glue as early as 200,000 years ago.

    The researchers made this surprising discovery by setting to work with only the tools and materials that Neanderthals possessed. They used experimental archaeology because the preservation of ancient adhesives is incredibly rare and there is no direct archaeological evidence about how tar was made during the Palaeolithic. In situations like this, experimental archaeology provides a window into the past that would not otherwise exist.

    ‘In earlier experimental attempts, researchers only managed to extract small quantities of tar from birch bark, or they didn't get anything at all,’ says Kozowyk. ‘It was beleived that this was because the fire needed to be controlled to within a narrow temperature range. However, we discovered that there are more ways to produce tar, and that some work even with a significant temperature variation. So, precisely controlling the temperature of the fire is not as important as was initially thought.’

    Kozowyk and his colleagues show that Neanderthals discovered tar production by combining existing knowledge and materials. Neandertals may have started with a simple method that required only fire and birch bark, and later adopted a more complex method to obtain higher yields of tar.


    Neanderthal 'glue' points to complex thinking

    The glue was made from birch tar in a process that required forward planning and involved several different steps.

    It adds to mounting evidence that we have underestimated the capabilities of our evolutionary cousins.

    Only a handful of Neanderthal tools bear signs of adhesive, but experts say the process could have been widespread.

    The tool, found in the Netherlands, has spent the last 50,000 years under the North Sea. This may have helped preserve the tar adhesive.

    Co-author Marcel Niekus, from the Stichting STONE/Foundation for Stone Age Research in Groningen, said the simple stone flake was probably used either for cutting plant fibres or for scraping animal skins.

    While birch tar may have been used by Neanderthals to attach stone tools to wooden handles in some cases, this particular tool probably had a grip made only of tar. Dr Niekus said there was no imprint from a wood or bone shaft in the tar.

    It would have enabled the user to apply more pressure to the stone flake without cutting their hands - turning the edge into a precision cutting tool.

    The tool was made by Neanderthal groups living at the icy limits of their range, say the authors of the study. At the time, this area would have been part of Doggerland, a landmass that is now subsumed under the North Sea.

    These small hunting groups would have inhabited icy tundra, with relatively few trees.

    "They had to really plan ahead, because the process needs at least 40kg of wood. In steppe tundra conditions that's not easy to collect, because you only have dwarf birch trees," Dr Niekus told BBC News.

    "They also had to invest time and energy in building the fire and extracting the tar."

    Researchers used to think Neanderthals only hafted (the action of attaching a handle or strap to a cutting edge) certain types of specialised tools, like points and scrapers.

    The Dutch find, along with a few others from Europe, shows that "they also hafted very simple, ugly flakes," said Dr Niekus. "That's something we didn't expect.

    "With the investment in time needed, you would expect them only to do it with special hunting weapons, but they did it with special domestic tools as well. We think the use of birch tar was quite widespread."

    There are hundreds of Neanderthal sites in the Netherlands, but this is the first Neanderthal birch tar found in the country, and it is hardly ever found in Europe. Marcel Niekus thinks this is because the tar is not preserved under usual conditions. The circumstances under the North Sea were perfect for preserving the tar, providing "a tiny window on Neanderthal normality".

    "The important aspect of our find is that we can show that out of the different known methods to distill the pitch from birch bark, Neanderthals used the more complex ones," said co-author Dr Gerrit Dusseldorp from the University of Leiden.

    "These are more efficient, and the distribution of contaminants in the tar that we can see on CT-scans is similar to that in complex distillation methods."

    Birch tar is also found in Neanderthal contexts at Campitello, Italy, at 200,000 years ago and at Königsaue, Germany, where the evidence is 50,000 years old.

    Neanderthals in Italy may also have used pine tree resin for hafting 50,000 years ago. But this natural substance is not as pliable, making researchers think that birch tar was probably their first choice. There are also traces of bitumen found in Neanderthal contexts between 42,000 and 70,000 years ago.

    The stone tool was found on Zandmotor beach near The Hague, from the same sandy beds that have yielded a Neanderthal skull fragment. Carbon dating of the tar yielded an age around 50,000 years.

    "Modern humans in South Africa are known to produce adhesives from around 100,000 years ago," Dr Dusseldorp told BBC News.

    "This is 100,000 years later than the earliest known Neanderthal find. However, because such finds are only rarely preserved this does not definitively prove that there are no older modern human adhesives. We just haven't found them yet."


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