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A bone tool suggests that Neanderthals weren't club-lugging brutes

This photo provided Monday, Aug.12, 2013 by Pech-de-l'Aze Project shows a classic Neandertal cave site of Pech-de-l’Aze, southwestern France, where a bone tool called a lissoir was recently found. This tool was dated to approximately 50,000-years old. Photo: AP Photo/ Image courtesy: Pech-de-l’Azé Project

LOS ANGELES — Scientists in Europe say they unearthed strong evidence that Neanderthals fashioned their own specialized bone tools.

The find adds to the accumulating evidence that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than previously thought, contrary to their brutish, club-lugging ape-men image.

In a report published Monday, Aug. 12, in a science journal, archaeologists described the discovery of four fragments of bone tools known as lissoirs at two Neanderthal sites in southwestern France.

The implements are the oldest specialized bone tools found in Europe, said study lead author Marie Soressi, an archaeologist from Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Lissoirs Used To Scrape Hides 

Before the finds, tools unearthed at Neanderthal sites were almost exclusively made of stone. Bone tools were more common at early modern-human sites — leading many scholars to believe that Neanderthals adopted the technology from their more advanced relatives.

But the recently unearthed lissoirs, about 41,000 to 51,000 years old, could predate the arrival of modern humans in Europe. The timings suggests that Neanderthals might have figured out how to make the tools themselves, Soressi and her team wrote.

“I don’t think that the image of the brutish or stupid Neanderthal is true anymore,” said Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.

Ancient lissoirs were made from animal ribs. Leather workers probably scraped the tools against hides to create more shiny, waterproof leather. Craftspeople still use lissoirs today.

Soressi’s group unearthed the first lissoir fragment from the Pech-de-l’Aze I excavation site in southwestern France in 2005. Team member and archaeologist William Rendu of the French National Center for Scientific Research noticed the unusual looking fragment of deer rib. He "immediately saw" that its shape and markings weren’t anatomical or due to sediment wearing away at the bone, he said.

Tool Emerges From Under Microscope

Further examination under a microscope revealed that the artifact, less than a centimeter long, had a worn edge and a polished surface. Those characteristics suggested that it had come from a tool.

“It was obvious it was a lissoir,” Soressi said, adding that lissoirs in use today share a similar design. The ancient fragment was probably a tip that had broken off, she said.

To confirm that the tip came from a lissoir, the researchers road-tested the tools, fashioning their own lissoirs and scraping them against animal hides. When they compared their replicas to the artifact under a microscope, the tools shared the same signs of wear: cracks radiating from the tip.

Soressi shared her findings with Shannon McPherron, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. He was researching Neanderthal behavior at a nearby site called Abri Peyrony.

McPherron and his coworkers began searching his site for lissoir fragments too. The group found three over the next seven years, and confirmed they too came from leather-working tools.

“We didn’t expect to find these bones,” said McPherron, a study co-author. “We were thrilled.”

Not A Copy Of A Stone Tool

Although archaeologists had discovered bone tools at Neanderthal sites before, these were the first that weren’t just copies of existing stone tools, McPherron said. They exploited bone’s unique properties, McPherron said.

“Ribs have a certain flexibility” that stone lacks, he said. “When you’re working hide, you want the bone to give a little bit.”

Radiocarbon dating put one of the lissoirs at 51,000 years ago — thousands of years before modern humans arrived in Europe. That suggests that our ancestors may have adopted the practice of making bone tools from the continent’s earlier Neanderthal inhabitants.

But it’s just as likely that modern humans arrived earlier than previously thought, and influenced the Neanderthals, Soressi said.

“It’s a hard call,” said Donald Henry, an archaeologist from the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. Henry said most of the evidence suggested that Neanderthals adopted the technology from modern humans.

Neanderthals "Weren't Dumb" 

But even if Neanderthals did adopt elements of modern human culture, “that doesn’t mean they’re inferior,” Henry said. “There are many examples of human societies adopting technologies from other societies, and it doesn’t imply that the ones who adopted it were stupid.”

The findings add to earlier evidence of complex behavior in Neanderthals. They used tree resin as glue and made pitch to waterproof their boats, Villa said.

“Maybe they didn’t have opera, but they weren’t dumb,” Henry added. “They survived hundreds of thousands of years. We haven’t done that yet.”

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