The hafting of stone tools was an important advance in the technological evolution of Paleolithic humans. Joining a handle to a knife or scraper and attaching a sharp point to a wooden shaft made stone tools more efficient and easier to use. According to new research, published in the journal PLoS ONE, Neanderthals living in Europe from about 55,000 to 40,000 years ago traveled away from their caves to collect resin from pine trees, and then used that sticky substance to glue stone tools to wood or bone handles.
“We continue to find evidence that the Neanderthals were not inferior primitives but were quite capable of doing things that have traditionally only been attributed to modern humans,” said senior author Dr. Paola Villa, from the University of Colorado Museum, Boulder, the Istituto Italiano di Paleontologia Umana in Rome, Italy, and the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“That insight came from a chance discovery from two Middle Paleolithic caves in Latium, Italy: Fossellone Cave and Sant’Agostino Cave.”
Dr. Villa and her colleagues found a strange residue on a handful of stone tools from the two sites.
“Sometimes that material is just inorganic sediment, and sometimes it’s the traces of the adhesive used to keep the tool in its socket,” she said.
To find out, the researchers conducted a chemical analysis of 10 flints using a technique called gas chromatography/mass spectrometry.
The tests showed that the stone tools had been coated with resin from local pine trees. In one case, that resin had also been mixed with beeswax.
“The findings indicate that Italian Neanderthals didn’t just resort to their bare hands to use stone tools,” Dr. Villa said.
“In at least some cases, they also attached those tools to handles to give them better purchase as they sharpened wooden spears or performed other tasks like butchering or scraping leather.”
The find isn’t the oldest known example of hafting by Neanderthals in Europe — two flakes discovered in the Campitello Quarry in central Italy predate it.
But it does suggest that this technique was more common than previously believed.
I. Degano et al. 2019. Hafting of Middle Paleolithic tools in Latium (central Italy): New data from Fossellone and Sant’Agostino caves. PLoS ONE 14 (6): e0213473; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0213473
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