Excavation of the Neanderthal site of Abri Peyrony (France) where three bone tools (lissoirs) were recently discovered. Image courtesy of the Abri Peyrony Project.
Topic: Stone tools
Excavations at two cave sites in southwestern France have yielded bone fragments that show intentional shaping, likely by Neanderthals, to create specialized tools. Dated to before the known advent of modern humans in Europe, researchers suggest that they are the earliest specialized bone tools produced by Neanderthals, implying the need to re-assess elements of current theoretical models of Neanderthals and modern humans in Europe.
Excavating at the Pech-de-l’Azé I and Abri Peyrony sites, both located at separate tributaries of the Dordogne river in southwestern France, co-leader Shannon P. McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and colleagues recovered and analyzed assemblages of Mousterian of Acheulian Tradition (MTA) stone artifacts, which also included specially shaped deer rib bone artifacts known as Lissoirs not usually associated with MTA finds. Lissoirs are a specialized tool type made by grinding and polishing, and are thought to have been used on hides to make them tough, impermeable, and lustrous. Three specimens were found at Abri Peyrony and were dated to 47,710 – 41,130 Cal BP using radiocarbon accelerator mass spectrometry, and one specimen at Pech-de-l’Azé I, dated to 51,400 ka using optically stimulated luminescence dating techniques. The researchers identified the rib bone fragments as coming from medium-sized ungulates, specifically red deer or reindeer.
The dates make the bone tool finds the earliest known of their type associated with Neanderthals. Usually, such tools have been identified with modern humans who came upon the scene at a later time, but the dating and their location within a context of MTA stone tools, which are usually associated with Neanderthals, suggest that they were created by Neanderthals, not modern humans.
Reports McPherron, et al., “The bones reported here demonstrate that Middle Paleolithic Neandertals were shaping animal ribs to a desired, utilitarian form and, thus, were intentionally producing standardized (or formal) bone tools using techniques specific to working bone. These bones are the earliest evidence of this behavior associated with Neandertals, and they move the debate over whether Neandertals independently invented aspects of modern human culture to before the time of population replacement.”
“Thus, it remains to be determined whether MTA lissoirs are evidence that modern humans influenced Neandertals earlier and longer than previously suggested, whether these lissoirs represent independent invention and convergence, or whether, perhaps this time, Neandertals may have influenced subsequent Upper Paleolithic modern human populations in western Europe where lissoirs are common.”*
Details of their research have been published in a paper, Neandertals made the first specialized bone tools in Europe, by Marie Soressi, et al., in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
August 12, 2013
A reconstruction of how lissoirs, made of deer ribs, could have been used to prepare hides to make them more supple, lustrous and impermeable. The natural flexibility of ribs helps keep a constant pressure against the hide without tearing it. The bottom half of the figure illustrates how the downward pressure ultimately results in a break that produces small fragments like three of the reported bones. Image courtesy of the Abri Peyrony and Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects.