Home Archeology History Neanderthals Created Stone Tools Held Together by Ochre-Based Adhesives, Scientists Say

Neanderthals Created Stone Tools Held Together by Ochre-Based Adhesives, Scientists Say

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Photographs, drawings, and details of stone tools from Le Moustier, France. Image credit: D. Greinert / Schmidt et al., doi: 10.1126/sciadv.adl0822.

Archaeologists have found traces of ancient ochre-based multicomponent adhesives on 40,000-year-old stone tools from Le Moustier, France.

Photographs, drawings, and details of stone tools from Le Moustier, France. Image credit: D. Greinert / Schmidt et al., doi: 10.1126/sciadv.adl0822.

“These astonishingly well-preserved tools showcase a technical solution broadly similar to examples of tools made by early modern humans in Africa, but the exact recipe reflects a Neanderthal ‘spin,’ which is the production of grips for handheld tools,” said Dr. Radu Iovita, a researcher with the Center for the Study of Human Origins at New York University.

In the research, Dr. Iovita and colleagues examined stone tools with traces of red and yellow colorants from Le Moustier, an archaeological site in France that was discovered in the early 20th century.

These stone tools were created by Neanderthals during the Middle Paleolithic period between 120,000 and 40,000 years ago.

They are kept in the collection of Berlin’s Museum of Prehistory and Early History and had not previously been examined in detail.

“The items had been individually wrapped and untouched since the 1960s. As a result, the adhering remains of organic substances were very well preserved,” said Dr. Ewa Dutkiewicz, a researcher with Berlin’s Museum of Prehistory and Early History.

The researchers found traces of a mixture of ochre and bitumen on several Mousterian stone tools, such as scrapers, flakes, and blades.

Ochre is a naturally occurring earth pigment; bitumen is a component of asphalt and can be produced from crude oil, but also occurs naturally in the soil.

“We were surprised that the ochre content was more than 50%. This is because air-dried bitumen can be used unaltered as an adhesive, but loses its adhesive properties when such large proportions of ochre are added,” said Dr. Patrick Schmidt, a researcher at the University of Tübingen.

The scientists examined these materials in tensile tests — used to determine strength — and other measures.

“It was different when we used liquid bitumen, which is not really suitable for gluing. If 55% ochre is added, a malleable mass is formed,” Dr. Schmidt said.

The mixture was just sticky enough for a stone tool to remain stuck in it, but without adhering to hands, making it suitable material for a handle.

In fact, a microscopic examination of the use-wear traces on these stone tools revealed that the adhesives on the tools from Le Moustier were used in this way.

“The tools showed two kinds of microscopic wear: one is the typical polish on the sharp edges that is generally caused by working other materials,” Dr. Iovita.

“The other is a bright polish distributed all over the presumed hand-held part, but not elsewhere, which we interpreted as the results of abrasion from the ochre due to movement of the tool within the grip.”

The use of adhesives with several components, including various sticky substances such as tree resins and ochre, was previously known from early Homo sapiens in Africa but not from earlier Neanderthals in Europe.

Overall, the development of adhesives and their use in the manufacture of tools is considered to be some of the best material evidence of the cultural evolution and cognitive abilities of early humans.

“Compound adhesives are considered to be among the first expressions of the modern cognitive processes that are still active today,” Dr. Schmidt said.

In the Le Moustier region, ochre and bitumen had to be collected from distant locations, which meant a great deal of effort, planning, and a targeted approach.

“Taking into account the overall context of the finds, we assume that this adhesive material was made by Neanderthals,” Dr. Dutkiewicz said.

“What our study shows is that early Homo sapiens in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe had similar thought patterns,” Dr. Schmidt said.

“Their adhesive technologies have the same significance for our understanding of human evolution.”

This research is described in a paper published today in the journal Science Advances.

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Patrick Schmidt et al. 2024. Ochre-based compound adhesives at the Mousterian type-site document complex cognition and high investment. Science Advances 10 (8); doi: 10.1126/sciadv.adl0822

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