Neanderthals Made Leather-Working Tools from Bison and Aurochs Ribs

by johnsmith

Neanderthals selected rib bones from specific animals to make the lissoirs (French for ‘smoothers’), which are bone tools that have been intentionally shaped and used on animal hides to make them softer and more water resistant, according to new research led by paleoanthropologists from the University of California, Davis.

Neanderthals. Image credit: University of Utah via

Neanderthals. Image credit: University of Utah via

Scientists know that some Neanderthals produced bone tools. These include the discovery of five nearly identical fragments of lissoirs from two Paleolithic sites in southwest France: Pech-de-l’Azé I (Pech I) and Abri Peyrony.

These specialized tools are often worn so smooth that it’s impossible to tell which animal they came from just by looking at them.

Naomi Martisius from the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis and colleagues used a technique called Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) to look at residues of collagen protein from Pech I and Abri Peyrony lissoirs.

The ZooMS method breaks up samples into fragments that can be identified by their mass to charge ratio and used to reconstruct the original molecule.

Normally, this method would involve drilling a sample from the bone. To avoid damaging the precious specimens, the researchers were able to lift samples from the plastic containers in which the bones had been stored and recover enough material to perform an analysis.

Photographs of Pech-de-l’Azé I (a) and Abri Peyrony (b-e) lissoirs. Image credit:  Martisius et al, doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-64358-w.

Photographs of Pech-de-l’Azé I (a) and Abri Peyrony (b-e) lissoirs. Image credit: Martisius et al, doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-64358-w.

The results show that the bones used to make the lissoirs mostly came from animals in the cattle family, such as bison (Bison sp.) or aurochs (Bos sp.).

But other animal bones from the same deposit show that reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) were much more common and frequently hunted for food.

So the Neanderthals were choosing to use only ribs from certain types of animals to make these tools.

“I think this shows that Neanderthals really knew what they were doing,” Martisius said.

“They were deliberately picking up these larger ribs when they happened to come across these animals while hunting and they may have even kept these rib tools for a long time, like we would with a favorite wrench or screwdriver.”

Bovine ribs are bigger and more rigid than deer ribs, making them better suited for the hard work of rubbing skins without wearing out or breaking.

“Neanderthals knew that for a specific task, they needed a very particular tool. They found what worked best and sought it out when it was available,” Martisius said.

The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.


N.L. Martisius et al. 2020. Non-destructive ZooMS identification reveals strategic bone tool raw material selection by Neandertals. Sci Rep 10, 7746; doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-64358-w

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