The first string? Man-made, twisted, fibre, cords at least 90,000 years ago

(This post was first published on The k2p Blog)

The man in question may well have been Neanderthal. Fibre artefacts rot easily and the oldest remains found of a man-made, twisted, fibre “cord” or “string” dates from only about 30,000 years ago. A new paper describes perforations in upto 90,000 year old, stone and tooth artefacts as well as shells from Abri du Maras and other Neanderthal sites in France, indicating they had once been threaded on “strings” and worn as pendants.

Bruce L. Hardy, Marie-Hélène Moncel, Camille Daujeard, Paul Fernandes, Philippe Béarez, Emmanuel Desclaux, Maria Gema Chacon Navarro, Simon Puaud, Rosalia Gallotti Impossible Neanderthals? Making string, throwing projectiles and catching small game during Marine Isotope Stage 4 (Abri du Maras, France) Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 82, 15 December 2013, Pages 23–40

Abstract: Neanderthal behavior is often described in one of two contradictory ways: 1) Neanderthals were behaviorally inflexible and specialized in large game hunting or 2) Neanderthals exhibited a wide range of behaviors and exploited a wide range of resources including plants and small, fast game. Using stone tool residue analysis with supporting information from zooarchaeology, we provide evidence that at the Abri du Maras, Ardèche, France, Neanderthals were behaviorally flexible at the beginning of MIS 4. Here, Neanderthals exploited a wide range of resources including large mammals, fish, ducks, raptors, rabbits, mushrooms, plants, and wood. Twisted fibers on stone tools provide evidence of making string or cordage. Using a variety of lines of evidence, we show the presence of stone projectile tips, possibly used in complex projectile technology. This evidence shows a level of behavioral variability that is often denied to Neanderthals. Furthermore, it sheds light on perishable materials and resources that are not often recovered which should be considered more fully in reconstructions of Neanderthal behavior.

Cloth, after all, is just a collection of strings woven together in different ways. And if the invention of “string” pre-dates 90,000 years then it is likely that animal skins and some form of “cloth” could well have been in use by this time. We tend to have a picture of our pre-historic ancestors as “wild and savage, struggling to survive the travails of the ice-age they were living in. But as we learn more about the ingenuity of these ancestors and their inventions they are turning out to be a lot more sophisticated and “cultured” than our usual assumptions. The range of their expeditions and the speed with which they peopled the globe also suggests that their social skills were not negligible.

PastHorizons writes about the new paper:

A new article in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews examines much of the material recovered from the Abri du Maras site and appears to provide compelling evidence that twisted fibres were being created by Neanderthals at least 90,000 years ago.

At this site, Neanderthals also exploited a wide range of resources including large mammals, fish, ducks, raptors, rabbits, mushrooms, plants and wood.

However, Hardy and his colleagues have found slender, 0.7-millimetre-long plant fibres that are twisted together and were found near to some stone artefacts. Such fibres are not twisted together in nature, says the team, suggesting that the Neanderthals were responsible. ..

As these fibres are not twisted in their natural state experiments were carried out involving incising, planing, whittling, scraping and boring. In all cases, no twisted fibres resulted.

Further experiments conducted by Bruce Hardy involved the scraping, cutting and slicing of a variety of non-woody plants (roots, tubers, reeds, etc.), and again these also produced no twisted fibres such as those observed.

While not definitive, the lack of twisted fibres in these experiments lends some credence to the hypothesis that these derive from cordage.

“If they are indeed remnants of string or cordage, then they would be the earliest direct evidence of string,” says Hardy. “Albeit very fragmentary evidence.” 

The date of 90,000 years is important, as the material that the researchers are suggesting is string predates the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe by at least 45,000 years.

This in turn suggests that the Neanderthals occupying the Abri du Maras site had learned the complex act of making and using cordage, rather than imitating modern humans.  The uses and potential of this material has greater implications for understanding Neanderthal behaviour.

In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests Neanderthals developed a number of sophisticated behaviours.

Stone tools created by Neanderthals have also been found on the Greek islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos, hinting that the species may have made and used boats to cross the sea – although no direct evidence of boats has been found so far.

To carry out such voyages sturdy ropes would have been required to build and use rafts or boats. “The ability of Neanderthals to manufacture string and cordage certainly does make the idea of Neanderthal seafaring more plausible,” Bruce Hardy says.


About ktwop

Scientist, technologist, salesman, manager, executive and now a consultant and author.
This entry was posted in AMH, Homo Neanderthalensis, Origins and inventions and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The first string? Man-made, twisted, fibre, cords at least 90,000 years ago

  1. Pingback: The first string? Man-made, twisted, fibre, cords at least 90,000 years ago | The k2p blog

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