Neanderthals used fire to make tools for hunting 170,000 years ago

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Neanderthals in southern Tuscany used fire to manufacture wooden tools used for foraging and hunting around 171,000 years ago, experts have found.

Neanderthals used fire to make tools for hunting 170,000 years ago
Burned film on the handle end of a 170,000-year old Neanderthal digging stick, found among straight-tusked
elephant bones at Poggetti Vecchi, Tuscany [Credit: Aranguren et al./PNAS]

Experts used radiometric dating, which measures the decay of radioactive particles, to establish the age of a trove of wooden implements and bones they uncovered.

The finds furnish some of the earliest evidence of wood processing and fire use by Neanderthals.

The find was made by a team of researchers, including the Ministry of Heritage and Cultural Activities in Florence.

In 2012, excavations for building thermal baths at Poggetti Vecchi, nestled at the foot of a hill in Grosseto in southern Tuscany, turned up the collection of ancient artefacts.

This included wooden sticks and the fossilised bones of a straight-tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus.

Neanderthals used fire to make tools for hunting 170,000 years ago
Charring was discovered on 170,000-year old Neanderthal digging sticks, found among straight-tusked
elephant bones at Poggetti Vecchi, Tuscany [Credit: Aranguren et al./PNAS]

Lead archaeologist Biancamaria Aranguren and colleagues dated the site to the late Middle Pleistocene, when early Neanderthals inhabited the region.

Most of the wooden implements were hewn from boxwood branches and likely used as digging sticks.

Such digging sticks have been known to be used for gathering plants and hunting small game.

The ends of the metre long (40 inch) sticks were fashioned into blunt points and had rounded handles useful for foraging.

Cut marks and striations, a series of linear marks, on the sticks bear witness to the manufacturing process.

Neanderthals used fire to make tools for hunting 170,000 years ago
Close-up views of handles, cut marks and the singed surface of the wooden sticks
[Credit: Aranguren et al./PNAS]

Signs of superficial charring and microanalysis of blackened surfaces suggest the use of fire, in addition to stone tools, to scrape and shape the sticks.

Boxwood is among the hardiest and heaviest of European timbers.

It choice as a preferred material suggests the technical mastery of toolmaking by early Neanderthals.

The find also provides some of the earliest evidence for the use of fire for fabricating wooden tools.

Writing in the report, its authors said: ‘Wood is a widely available and versatile material, which has admittedly played a fundamental role in all human history.

Neanderthals used fire to make tools for hunting 170,000 years ago
Straight-tusked elephant tusk found at Poggetti Vecchi, c. 170,000 years old
[Credit: Aranguren et al./PNAS]

Wood, however, is most vulnerable to decomposition. Hence, its use is very rarely documented during prehistory.

‘The present study yields new insights into the cognitive abilities of the early Neanderthals in wooden tool production and pyrotechnology.

‘The early Neanderthals from the late Middle Pleistocene site of Poggetti Vecchi were able to choose the appropriate timber and to process it with fire to produce tools.

‘The artefacts recall the so-called “digging sticks,” multipurpose tools used by all hunter-gatherer societies.’

The full findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Author: Tim Collins | Source: Daily Mail [February 07, 2018]

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