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Neanderthals created and used glue, proving to be much smarter than we thought

Recent research has unveiled that Neanderthals, the predecessors to modern humans, developed stone tools using a sophisticated multi-component adhesive glue, challenging our previous understanding of their cognitive abilities and cultural sophistication.

This discovery, the earliest evidence of such complex adhesive usage in Europe, suggests that Neanderthals possessed a higher level of thought and cultural development than previously recognized.

The findings are the result of collaborative efforts by scientists from New York University, the University of Tübingen, and the National Museums in Berlin.

This fascinating research not only sheds light on the technological capabilities of Neanderthals but also places them on a closer intellectual footing with early modern humans in Africa.

Stone tools and sophisticated Neanderthal glue

Radu Iovita, an associate professor at New York University’s Center for the Study of Human Origins, highlighted the remarkable preservation of these tools, which exhibit a Neanderthal innovation in creating handles for hand-held tools.

“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 Iovita.

These tools bear a striking resemblance to those made by early modern humans, yet they carry a distinct Neanderthal signature in their fabrication.

The research was spearheaded by Patrick Schmidt from the University of Tübingen and Ewa Dutkiewicz from the National Museums in Berlin.

Their focus was on artifacts from Le Moustier, a French archaeological site with finds dating back to the Middle Palaeolithic period, approximately 120,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Unraveling Neanderthal ingenuity

These artifacts, which had been largely overlooked since their last examination, revealed upon closer inspection, traces of a complex Neanderthal adhesive glue made from ochre and bitumen.

“The items had been individually wrapped and untouched since the 1960s,” says Dutkiewicz. “As a result, the adhering remains of organic substances were very well preserved.”

The researchers expressed surprise at the high ochre content in the adhesive, noting its significant impact on the mixture’s properties.

“We were surprised that the ochre content was more than 50 percent,” Schmidt explained. “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.” 

This blend, they found, was just sticky enough to hold the stone tools in place without sticking to the users’ hands, indicating a sophisticated understanding of material properties.

Deciphering Neanderthal glue

Microscopic analysis conducted by Iovita on the wear patterns of these tools further confirmed their use in conjunction with adhesives.

The distinct polish and abrasion patterns provided evidence of how these tools were likely held and used, showcasing the Neanderthals’ practical ingenuity and the effectiveness of their adhesive glue technology.

“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,” explains Iovita, who conducted this analysis.

“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 study underscores the significance of adhesive technology in understanding the cognitive capabilities and cultural evolution of early humans.

Reassessing Neanderthal intelligence

The development and use of such complex adhesives were once thought to be exclusive to Homo sapiens in Africa. However, this discovery reveals that Neanderthals in Europe shared similar technological insights and thought processes.

Moreover, the effort and planning required to source materials like ochre and bitumen from distant locations speak to the Neanderthals’ advanced planning abilities and their strategic approach to tool-making. This level of sophistication suggests a deliberate and thoughtful process in their technological practices.

Dutkiewicz and Schmidt conclude that the adhesive material was undoubtedly produced by Neanderthals, adding a significant chapter to our understanding of human evolution.

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

“What our study shows is that early Homo sapiens in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe had similar thought patterns,” adds Schmidt. “Their adhesive technologies have the same significance for our understanding of human evolution.”

This parallel in adhesive technologies emphasizes the cognitive and cultural parallels between these two groups, enriching our appreciation of Neanderthals’ place in human history.

Redefining human history with Neanderthal glue

In summary, this study shatters long-held stereotypes about Neanderthals and illuminates the rich tapestry of human evolution. Neanderthals were not mere rudimentary beings, but very innovative and thoughtful toolmakers.

By uncovering the sophisticated use of multi-component adhesives in stone tool construction, researchers have provided compelling evidence of Neanderthals’ cognitive capabilities and cultural sophistication.

Their discovery, bridging the gap between Neanderthals and early modern humans, underscores the complexity of our ancestors’ lives and challenges us to rethink the narrative of human progress and ingenuity.

The full study was published in the journal Science Advances.


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