Contrary to popular belief, Neanderthals were no less technologically advanced than Homo sapiens. An international team, including researchers from the CNRS, have discovered the first evidence of cord making, dating back more than 40,000 years (1), on a flint fragment from the prehistoric site of Abri du Maras in the south of France (2). Microscopic analysis showed that these remains had been intertwined, proof of their modification by humans. Photographs revealed three bundles of twisted fibres, plied together to create one cord. In addition, spectroscopic analysis revealed that these strands were made of cellulose, probably from coniferous trees. This discovery highlights unexpected cognitive abilities on the part of Neanderthals, who not only had a good understanding of the mathematics involved in winding the fibres, but also a thorough knowledge of tree growth. These results, published on 9 April 2020 in Scientific Reports, represent the oldest known proof of textile and cord technology to date.
The following laboratories contributed to this work: Histoire naturelle de l'Homme préhistorique (CNRS/Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle/Université de Perpignan Via Domitia), De la molécule aux nano-objets : réactivité, interactions et spectroscopies (CNRS/Sorbonne Université), along with the Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France (ministère de la Culture).
The excavations at the Abri du Maras have in particular benefited from funding from the French Ministry of Culture and the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Regional Archaeology Service.
The discovery of the oldest known direct evidence of fibre technology -- using natural fibres to create yarn -- is reported in Scientific Reports this week. The finding furthers our understanding of the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals during the Middle Palaeolithic period (30,000-300,000 years ago).
Bruce Hardy and colleagues discovered a six-millimetre-long cord fragment consisting of three bundles of fibres twisted together and adhering to a 60-millimetre-long, thin stone tool. The authors speculate that the cord was wrapped around the tool as a handle or was part of a net or bag containing the tool. They date the cord fragment, which they discovered in Abri du Maras, France, to between 41,000-52,000 years ago. Using spectroscopy and microscopy, they identified that the cord likely consists of fibres taken from the inner bark of a non-flowering tree such as a conifer.
The authors suggest that production of the cord would have required extensive knowledge of the growth and seasonality of the trees used. They also speculate that Neanderthals may have needed an understanding of mathematical concepts and basic numeracy skills to create bundles of fibres (yarn), the three-ply cord and rope from multiple cords.
Prior to this discovery the oldest discovered fibre fragments in the Ohalo II site in Israel dated back to around 19,000 years ago. The findings of the new study suggest that fibre technology is much older, and that the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals may have been more similar to those of modern humans than previously thought.