The excavation site at Abri du Maras. Image: M-H. Moncel

Tiny bits of twisted plant fibers found on an ancient stone tool suggest that Neanderthals were able to make and use sophisticated cords like string and rope.

The discovery of the oldest known direct evidence of fiber technology — yarn — is reported in Scientific Reports this week. The finding furthers our understanding of the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals.

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The discovery was made by scientists working in the south of France at the Abri du Maras site, a well-known and well-documented Neanderthal site.

Bruce Hardy and colleagues discovered a six-millimeter-long cord fragment consisting of three bundles of fibers twisted together and adhering to a 60-millimeter-long, thin stone tool. The paper authors speculate that the cord was wrapped around the tool as a handle or was a part of a net or bag containing the tool.

Microscopic analysis of these bundles showed that they had been intertwined, proof of their modification by humans.

“There are three bundles of fibers that are twisted counterclockwise, and then those bundles, once they are twisted, are twisted back the other way, clockwise, around each other to form a cord or string,”

– Archaeologist Bruce Hardy, a researcher from Kenyon College in Ohio and the first author of the new study.

The string was dated to between 41,000 and 52,000 years ago, which predates the arrival of homo sapiens to the region. These dates were derived from the stratigraphic layer in which the items were found.

The importance of this cord fragment is in the full breadth of possibilities it opens up. Generally, we get to see stone tools and bones for archeological sites as old as this. While bones and stones were certainly important, perishable materials, however, comprised the vast majority of material culture items and these items, by and large, have not survived the years.

Microscopic image of the Neanderthal cord.
Image: M-H. Moncel

Prior to this discovery, the oldest discovered fiber fragments in the Ohalo II site in Israel dated back to around 19,000 years ago. The findings of the new study suggest that fiber technology is much older and is even more proof that the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals were probably very similar to those of modern humans.

Neanderthals manufactured glue, wore eagle talons as jewelry, decorated themselves with feathers, started their own fires, made cave paintings, and fashioned tools from seashells. We can now add fiber technology to this impressive list, thanks to the new research published in Scientific Reports.

Reference:

B. L. Hardy, M.-H. Moncel, C. Kerfant, M. Lebon, L. Bellot-Gurlet & N. Mélard Direct evidence of Neanderthal fibre technology and its cognitive and behavioral implications