What may be the world’s oldest string of bark Neanderthals about 50,000 years ago has been discovered in a mountain shelter in France.
It’s a small fragment – just over two-tenths of an inch long – but its discoverers say it shows that the Neanderthals had extensive knowledge of the trees it was made of and enough practical ability to make a string that would hold under tension.
Analysis of the discovery was first released Thursday in the scientific journal Scientific Reports.
It is the first time a string or cord attributed to the Neanderthals has been found ̵
It also suggests that the Neanderthals – the archetypal raw cavemen – were smarter than some people give them credit for.
“This is just one more piece of the puzzle that shows that they really don’t differ much from us,” said paleo anthropologist Bruce Hardy of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, who was part of the team that discovered the string.
Hardy saw the strand fragment attached to a small stone tool found at the Abri du Maras rock shelter in southeastern France, occupied by the Neanderthals – Homo sapiens neanderthalensis – until about 40,000 years ago.
Prior to this, what was believed to be the oldest strand in Israel was found and was made by early modern humans – Homo sapiens – some 19,000 years ago.
The tool from France was a sharp-edged flint used for cutting, and the string could have tied it to a handle, Hardy said.
Only the fragment of the strand was left – but enough to look at with an electron microscope: “This is the oldest direct proof of the strand that we have,” he said.
Twisted bark fibers have been found previously, but they were not enough to show definitively that Neanderthals used string.
But the last fibers were first twisted counterclockwise into single strands, and three strands were then twisted clockwise to form a string that would not loosen.
“This is the first time we found a multi-fiber piece and two layers of twists that say we have string,” Hardy said.
The fibers are believed to come from the inner bark of a coniferous tree, which means that the string’s manufacturers had a detailed knowledge of trees. “You can’t just get any old tree and get fiber from it, nor can you take the right kind of tree and get it at any time of the year,” he said.
The three-layer structure also suggests the Neanderthals who did so had basic computational skills.
“They show knowledge of pairs and number of sets,” Hardy said. “You have to understand these elements to create the structure – without it you wouldn’t get a cord.”
The discovery of the strand fragment suggests a variety of objects used by Neanderthals, such as wooden objects, animal skins, fabrics and ropes.
Hardy hopes that analysis of other Neanderthal finds will reveal fragments of more perishable techniques, such as wicker and weaving.
Not all researchers are convinced that the latest findings clearly show that Neanderthals made strings.
Andrew Sorensen, a paleolithic archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, notes that the fragment is extremely fine – about as thick as five sheets of paper – and may have been too thin to be useful.
Instead, the twisted bark fibers can be the result of rubbing them together to create a tinder for a fire or from scraping the bark of the stone tool, he said.
“I’m a fan of the Neanderthals being quite intelligent and being able to do many kinds of things like that [early modern humans] do, “he said. “I just don’t know if this is a home run showing this activity.”