Neanderthals used and recycled an ancient glue made using fire to construct tools

A new study of Neanderthals, this time in Italy, has given us new insight into the lives of our distant cousins revealing that they regularly made fires and actually used an ancient “glue” to construct stone tools.

Dr. Paola Villa of the University of Colorado at Boulder participated in a project studying the Neanderthal caves at Grotta del Fossellone and Grotta di Sant’Agostino located on the west coast of Italy.

Grotta del Fossellone via Wikimedia

Villa and the rest of the team particularly focused on the tools the Neanderthals used and left behind in the caves, using a mass spectrometer to analyze the flints found in the cave. And the results were enlightening.

Up to now, there has only been one case of “hafting” in the Middle Paleolithic of Italy.

Hafting is a method of fusing stone flints with handles made of bone or wood to create a tool that is easier to use. Hafting can be done by using cordage to tie a flint onto a handle. But resin from conifer trees such as pine trees can be used to glue the flint into a socket or groove cut into the bone or wood. Even beeswax was used by the Neanderthals to make their adhesive.

The team gathered soil samples and samples of flint to analyze in an effort to figure out what substances could be identified on them.

“Sometimes that material is just inorganic sediment, and sometimes it’s the traces of the adhesive used to keep the tool in its socket,” Villa said of the spectrometer results in an interview with CU Boulder Today.

According to the study

Analysis of the organic residue by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry shows that a conifer resin adhesive was used, in one case mixed with beeswax. Contrary to previous suggestions that the small Middle Paleolithic tools of Latium could be used by hand and that hafting was not needed since it did not improve their functionality, our evidence shows that hafting was used by Neandertals in central Italy.

Just like a study in Israel has changed our views that Neanderthals were cave dwellers, this study proves that they were more intelligent and resourceful than previously believed.

“You need stone tools to cut branches off of trees and make them into a point,” Villa said.

And that’s not all. Because the Neanderthals had to soften the resin to use it properly, that means they had to regularly make fires.

Ethnographic evidence indicates that resin, which dries when exposed to air, is generally warmed by exposure to a small fire thus softened to be molded and pushed in position in the haft. The use of resin at both sites suggests regular fire use, as confirmed by moderate frequencies of burnt lithics in both assemblages. Lithic analysis shows that hafting was applied to a variety of artifacts, irrespective of type, size and technology. Prior to our study evidence of hafting in the Middle Paleolithic of Italy was limited to one case only.

“This is one of several proofs that strongly indicate that Neanderthals were capable of making fire whenever they needed it,” Villa said.

And for those of you who enjoy the nitty-gritty scientific details, the study included that as well:

“The analytical results…show that the residues in Fossellone cave derive from plant lipids (oil and/or waxes) in some cases mixed with Pinaceae resin possibly to improve the adhesive properties of the resin. In one sample, beeswax mixed with the resin was detected.”

“In Sant’Agostino cave samples, the material employed for hafting is Pinaceae resin, which was, at least in two cases probably heated in the presence of wood before application. This should not be a surprise since resin is a thermoplastic material. Although resin is viscous (sticky) when it exudes from the tree, it dries exposed to the air. Since the sites are two caves where debitage, retouching, and domestic activities were carried out it is likely that resin was collected at some distance from the cave. Then warming of the resin was needed.”

“Ethnographic evidence indicates that resin was generally warmed and softened by moderate heat, such as holding the collected resin near a small fire or on its embers. Once softened the resin is pliable and can be molded and pushed in position in the haft and around the stone tool with a pointed stick. The resin then sets again and hardens as it cools down, keeping the stone in place. The hardened resin can be reheated and melted for re-hafting.”

Image via Wikimedia

That last sentence is particularly important because it means Neanderthals not only recycled flint to make new tools, it means they recycled resin as well.

All of these discoveries combine to reveal that we have a lot more to learn about Neanderthals and that much of what we believed about them is wrong.

“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,” Villa concluded.

In short, it turns out that modern humans and Neanderthals have much more in common after all.

More from NOVA and “Neanderthal Superglue” below:

Featured Image: Screenshot via YouTube

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