Twisted fiber cords are so ubiquitous today that it’s easy to take them for granted. But it’s a key survival technology that can be used to do everything from clothes to bags to shelters.
This piece of prehistoric chain, described in the newspaper Scientific reports, was kept on a flint tool that dates back about 41,000 to 52,000 years. It came from a cave-like shelter in the south of France that was once inhabited by Neanderthals.
The discovery adds to the growing evidence that our closest missing human relative was not as stupid as scientists had long assumed.
“They’re that kind of” other “ultimate, this creature who is very similar to us but who is somehow supposed to be too stupid to live,” said Bruce Hardy, paleoanthropologist at Kenyon College in Ohio. He points out that the Neanderthals were smart enough to have persisted for hundreds of thousands of years before finally disappearing about 40,000 years ago.
But understanding their lives has been difficult because archaeologists usually find only human remains, animal bones and stone tools. “Almost everything we want to see is gone,” said Hardy. “And so we have to try to find ways to make the most of the equipment we have. “
On the surfaces of stone tools, he explains, it is sometimes possible to find material residue that would otherwise decompose. How this conservation occurs is not well understood. But if a tool is placed on another material, for example, it can create a kind of capsule or micro-environment that can keep things stable.
“Starch grains, plant bits, hair, feathers – things like that can all survive,” said Hardy.
He was examining a stone tool when he saw white spots which he then examined under a microscope. “It was a mass of twisted fibers,” he said. “It was clear that we had something, as soon as I saw it. “
Additional work with a more powerful microscope has revealed what looks like a classic structure used to make ropes. “What we found is a small fragment of a three-ply cord,” said Hardy, adding that it is made from fibers from the inner bark of some sort of evergreen tree.
“There are three bundles of fibers which are twisted anticlockwise, then these bundles, once twisted, are twisted in the other direction, clockwise, each around the others to form a cord or string, “he added.
Previously, the oldest known cord fragment was around 19,000 years ago, at a site in Israel. Scientists had also found footprints left in the clay by something that looked like woven fibers 27,000 years ago.
Marie-Hélène Moncel of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France, who is part of the research team that worked on this new discovery, said that it was impossible for the twisted structure found on the tool appears spontaneously from nature – it had to be built intentionally.
“It was incredible,” she said.
And given the location where the artifact was found and the other bones and tools found on the site, she said, “It is clear that it is related to the Neanderthals,” not to the anatomically modern humans who began to appear in Europe around 40,000 years ago.
John Shea, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York, is not so sure.
“The idea that this rope is necessarily made by Neanderthals is questionable,” he said, even though remains of Neanderthals were found nearby. “You should always keep an open mind. It just means that the Neanderthals were there. That doesn’t exclude the possibility that humans were wandering in this same part of the world at the same time. “
Still, he added, “We have long suspected that humans and earlier Neanderthals had some sort of rope, a means of tying one thing to another. This is, as far as I know, one of the first definitive proofs. “
The rope was probably in use half a million years ago, said Shea. He noted that some extremely old stone tools appear to have been designed to fit the handles, and that these tools will quickly detach from a handle without glue or rope to keep it firmly tight.
It’s pretty easy to use almost any weed for rope, Shea said, “You can do a simple rope in minutes. “
The production of high quality ropes and ropes, however, requires a certain know-how. And he said there was no reason to think that the Neanderthals would not be able to.
“There is not a single piece, and I mean not even the slightest trace of evidence,” he said, “that the Neanderthals were deficient in intelligence compared to humans. “