Archaeologists working at the Neanderthal site of Abri du Maras in France have discovered a 46,000-year-old cord fragment — the oldest known direct evidence of fiber technology.
Neanderthals are often considered as less technologically advanced than modern humans.
Archaeologists typically only find faunal remains or stone tools at Neanderthal sites. Perishable materials, comprising the vast majority of material culture items, are typically missing.
Individual twisted fibers on stone tools from the site of Abri du Maras led to the hypothesis of Neanderthal string production in the past, but conclusive evidence was lacking.
“The cord fragment from Abri du Maras is the oldest direct evidence of fiber technology to date,” said Kenyon College’s Professor Bruce Hardy and colleagues.
“Its production demonstrates a detailed ecological understanding of trees and how to transform them into entirely different functional substances.”
The cord fragment is approximately 6.2 mm in length and 0.5 mm in width.
It consists of three bundles of fibers twisted together and was found a 6-cm-long flake tool.
The researchers speculate that the cord was wrapped around the tool as a handle or was part of a net or bag containing the tool.
“The cord is not necessarily related to the use of the tool. Its presence on the inferior surface of the flake during excavation demonstrates that it was deposited before or contemporaneous with the flake,” they said.
A flake with adhering cord fragment from the site of Abri du Maras, France. Image credit: M.-H. Moncel.
The scientists date the cord fragment to between 41,000 and 52,000 years ago.
Using spectroscopy and microscopy, they identified that the cord likely consists of fibers taken from the inner bark of a non-flowering tree such as a conifer.
“The cord from Abri du Maras consists of fibers derived from the inner bark of gymnosperms, likely conifers,” they explained.
“The fibrous layer of the inner bark is referred to as bast and eventually hardens to form bark.”
“In order to make cordage, Neanderthals had extensive knowledge of the growth and seasonality of these trees.”
“Bast fibers are easier to separate from the bark and the underlying wood in early spring as the sap begins to rise. The fibers increase in size and thickness as growth continues.”
“The best times for harvesting bast fibers would be from early spring to early summer. Once bark is removed from the tree, beating can help separate the bast fibers from the bark. Additionally, retting the fibers by soaking in water aids in their separation and can soften and improve the quality of the bast.”
“The bast must then be separated into strands and can be twisted into cordage. In this case, three groups of fibers were separated and twisted clockwise (s-twist). Once twisted the strands were twined counterclockwise (Z-twist) to form a cord.”
Prior to this discovery the oldest discovered fiber fragments in the Ohalo II site in Israel dated back to around 19,000 years ago.
The findings of the new study suggest that fiber technology is much older, and that the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals may have been more similar to those of modern humans than previously thought.
“While it is clear that the cord from Abri du Maras demonstrates Neanderthals’ ability to manufacture cordage, it hints at a much larger fiber technology,” the authors said.
“Once the production of a twisted, plied cord has been accomplished it is possible to manufacture bags, mats, nets, fabric, baskets, structures, snares, and even watercraft.”
“Fiber technology would have been an important part of everyday life and would have influenced seasonal scheduling and mobility,” they added.
“Furthermore, the production of cordage implies a cognitive understanding of numeracy and context sensitive operational memory.”
“Given the ongoing revelations of Neanderthal art and technology, it is difficult to see how we can regard Neanderthals as anything other than the cognitive equals of modern humans.”
The findings were published in the journal Scientific Report.
B.L. Hardy et al. 2020. Direct evidence of Neanderthal fibre technology and its cognitive and behavioral implications. Sci Rep 10, 4889; doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-61839-w