Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Birth of Technology

The Birth of Technology

Our genus Homo has been making tools for the last 2.5 million years. Neanderthals adopted the Acheulean industry from their Homo Erectus forebears, eventually inventing their own industry called Mousterian. When humans and Neanderthals met we adopted their technology, and the late Neanderthal toolkit is the same as early humans. Mousterian sites can be either human or Neanderthal based on what fossils are found, and some have no fossil record. The Neanderthal toolkit changed very little over 100s of thousands of years, they suffered from serious technological inertia. Even after adopting the Neanderthal industry, early humans sites often show more variability in style. Why did Neanderthal technology remain so stable? Possibly they weren't as creative as early humans, reinforced by the small population size which kept the rate of invention low. For now, let's examine what they did invent.

A chart showing the overlap of hominins and tool industries

A map showing the distribution of bi-facial tools during the Acheulean
The distribution of Mousterian sites across Europe and Asia

Mousterian tools are defined by the use of soft hammer percussion. Neanderthals would use either bone, wood, or antler hammers to make their stone tools. This led to a relatively simple bone industry, in comparison to early human bone industry. What is found in the record are lots of stone flakes, hand axes, and spears, what is not found are wooden objects. Presumably Neanderthals, as well as previous hominins created lots of complex wooden tools which were not preserved.

Another chart showing the overlap of hominins and tool industries

The Hand Axe

The mainstay of Neanderthal technology was the hand axe. They used hand axes for butchering, digging, chopping wood, removing bark, throwing at prey, or chipped them away to create flake tools. Neanderthal hand axes are almost always symmetrical, which was certainly intended by the designer. Why was this the case? Symmetry reduces the necessary force when using the object as a cutting tool. Anna Machin and others in a 2007 study demonstrated that symmetry in hand axes is only useful when it is localized around the tip of the hand axe, the rest of the object being symmetrical did not add more cutting power to the tool. This is quite a strange fact, since most Neanderthal hand axes are entirely symmetrical. Why would a Neanderthal make the whole piece symmetrical?

Such is the perfection of the carving on some hand axes that they give the impression that the artist took great pleasure in them...we are unable to pronounce from this...whether it was art or the utility of the hand axe that was being sought by making them so well. Although in our heart of hearts we are sure that they were searching for beauty, aesthetics, as they could have achieved the same efficiency with cruder pieces.” -Benito del Rey.

A Lower Palaeolithic hand axe made ca 400 kya found at Hoxne, England, probably made by Homo Erectus or Heidelbergensis. Strikingly straight, symmetrical, and attractive, this hand axe is a wonderful example of palaeolithic thought and design

Whether or not Neanderthals made symmetrical hand axes for an aesthetic purpose is debated, but Neanderthals did recognize symmetry in other objects as well. The utilitarian function and aesthetic function of a hand axe may have been tied together in a Neanderthal mind, with no distinction between making a beautiful hand axe and an effective hand axe.

A symmetrical Mousterian hand axe, this is the first scientific sketch of a hand axe, by John Frere in 1800

Not all hand axes were made equal. They come in all types of stone, ranging in many different colors. Some included fossils in their designs, either shells or sea urchins. The use of color and the positioning of fossils in hand axes shows a serious level of thought behind owning a hand axe. It was not only for strict utilitarian purposes, but certain hand axes were more valuable than others based on their aesthetic qualities. Special and rare rocks (obsidian and possibly ones with fossils) were traded between Neanderthal clans, up to distances of hundreds of miles. These passed through multiple clans' territories, showing that they were not only valued by a single member within a group, but valued within all groups. This is evidence of a more general culture operating behind the individual clans. Neanderthals shared a taste for these rare and aesthetically interesting objects, and it is this mental culture which united the disparate clans through trade.

A Neanderthal hand axe with a shell fossil from Norfolk England, made around 200 kya

A hand axe with a sea urchin fossil, made by Homo Heidelbergensis around 400 kya
An early Neanderthal (or Homo Erectus) flint scraper made from a sea urchin fossil, the fossil has been intentionally centered in respect to the design of the scraper

A Mousterian jasper hand axe found at Fontmaure France. Natural opening in the rock were used as finger grips, made around 40-80 kya

Acheulean hand axes in a variety of colors

An Acheulean hand axe from Cys-la-Commune France. Made 127-115 kya, it has a different type of rock directly at its center on both sides. When held in the hand your thumb naturally rests on this center spot and your fingers naturally rest on the spot on the opposite side

A different Acheulean hand axe from Cys-la-Commune France also made 127-115 kya. It has a red stain (not ochre) at the center and at the tip, it was intentionally flaked to have this design. When held in the hand, as with the previous hand axe, your fingers naturally rest on the center spot

One of the strangest artifacts comes not from Neanderthals, but from their predecessors Homo Heidelbergensis. Two large chert pieces of rock filled with coral fossils were found associated with Acheulean hand axes at Swanscombe, England. Either this piece of rock was carried around for some symbolic purpose, or it would have been used as raw material for decorated hand axes. It was found around 120 miles away from the only place in Britain with such rock, showing that it was valued by Heidelbergensis across the modern region of Kent. What does this piece signify, what does it tell us about their internal life? If it was kept as a manuport, then it must have had some symbolic context to a Heidelbergensis. If it was used for hand axes, it shows their long term planning capacity and also points to symbolic reasoning. Since hand axes with fossils were also made by Neanderthals hundreds of thousands of years later, it is possible that Neanderthals too shared similar mental processes regarding these objects.

One of two pieces of chert containing coral fossils associated with hand axes found at Swanscombe. It is not known whether these pieces were carried around in their present shape (a manuport), or were considered to be precious raw material for future hand axes. The only coal-bearing chert site in Britain is 193 km (120 miles) away from Swanscombe, this piece of rock must have been traded between hominin groups. It was mined, traded, and used by Heidelbergensis

The hand axe sculpture at Swanscombe Heritage Park, created in 2005. Humans today continue to create hand axes, albeit for quite different reasons

Neanderthals, like humans, built unique cultural variants into their technology. Hand axes were not excluded. Neanderthals in France and England, and Neanderthals in Germany had separate cultural traditions related to hand axes. The western tradition made symmetrical triangular heart shaped hand axes, and the eastern tradition made asymmetrically shaped bi-facial hand axes. These two traditions lasted from 115-35 kya. The lowlands and northern France were a cultural melting pot, a mixture of these two traditions where new unique traditions were born.

Distinct ways of making a hand axe were passed on from generation to generation and for long enough to become visible in the archeological record. This indicates a strong mechanism of social learning within these two groups and says something about the stability and connectivity of the Neanderthal populations...making stone tools were not merely an opportunistic task. A lot of time, effort, and tradition were invested and these tools carry a certain amount of socio-cultural information, which does not contribute directly to their function.” -Karen Ruebens.

A map of the two Neanderthal hand axe traditions. The MTA is the western tradition, KMG is the eastern, and MBT is a mixture of the two

Scrapers, Knives, and Spears

Neanderthals also made racloirs (French for scraper), a thin flint flake used for scraping hides or bark. It may have also been used more like a knife. Neanderthals also made points, which were specifically hafted to a spear or dart. These were stuck onto sticks using bitumen and some kind of lashing to create a spear. Neanderthals heated birch sap to use as an adhesive. The method of obtaining pitch they used is called dry distillation. Neanderthals would have used something bowl shaped (maybe an animal skull) to catch the pitch, and placed a small rock in the bowl for the pitch to harden onto. Then they would cover this with rolls of birch bark, then cover it all with ash. After that, Neanderthals would put straw or another combustible material over the ash pile and light it. The bark needs to achieve a temperature of 400 degrees centigrade (752 degrees Fahrenheit), any less and the pitch won't condense, any more and the birch bark will burn. Modern recreations have failed at this process, after 8 hours of burning one would only gather a small amount of pitch. Somehow Neanderthals scaled up this process to create the necessary amount of pitch for multiple weapons. They had certainly mastered this process, to the point that today we cannot even recreate it correctly. This was the first industrial process, and requires a large amount of knowledge and intelligence. Learning and mastering such a complex process would require trial and error over the course of many generations. Teaching such a process to adults or children would require complex theoretical language.

A bone lissoir, or animal hide scraper. Found in France, made around 45-51 kya by Neanderthals

Mousterian Neanderthal spear heads. Such spear points have been found in Germany, illustration by Libor Balak

Their Stonework

There is a simpler way to attach a stone point to a spear, but did not go down that path. They invented a difficult yet effective industrial process to achieve what their ancestors had been doing only haphazardly...the same holds true for their stone crafting skills (called knapping). Neanderthals invented a method called the Levallois technique. The idea is to create stone flakes, but this cannot be done from any old rock. First, you must turn your lumpy rock into a semi-uniform oval-like shape called a core. This process requires short and neat blows, always keeping the end result in mind, “There seems to be a goal involved.” -Metin Eren. Once you have an oval shaped core, you chip away the edges to create a gentle convexity, this means that when you do create a flake it will be sharp on all its edges. Once you have a core with gentle convexity, you must make a final and perfect strike to break off a flake. This last coup de grace must be at a particular angle to create a flake, too high and you chip off bits, too low and you crack the core and lose all your work. This is a very delicate process and extremely difficult to master, “It took me 18 months to master the Levallois technique, and that's after I had been flint knapping for a number of years.” -Metin Eren. Once you have your perfect flake, you must reshape the core and start all over again. It is remarkable that Neanderthals would discover and master such a difficult technique.

A diagram of how to prepare a core and remove a flake using the Levallois technique

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal knapping

An example of Neanderthal craftsmanship is at Marjorie's Cave, in the Netherlands. At this cave, researchers were able to piece together a core made up of 38 individual flakes, triple the number of any other core reconstructions. The knapper began by preparing the core, trimming off small flakes from the sides which were not preserved at the site. The knapper then trimmed off the top and bottom to create the distinctive tortoise shaped core. The knapper then found an area with distal convexity (a convex horizontal slope) at the top of the core and struck off a large flake. Even with a final product the knapper was not finished. The Neanderthal then rotated the core 90 degrees, and found a new spot with distal convexity for the next strike (the newly found distal convexity made up the lateral convexity before rotation). The knapper reshaped the core by taking off three smaller flakes, spotted the distal convexity, and again made a final strike. The knapper did this strike-rotate-strike pattern a total of 7 times before using the entirety of the core. Not only was the knapper an expert at resource management, but every flake made from this core is the same size. This craftsman was not some lumbering brute, but an expert. What is going on in the mind of such a craftsman? Processes which were considered distinctly human, such as long term goal oriented thought, and a fluid exchange between mental awareness and physical muscle memory.

First the action was divided into discrete phases...second, each phase was guided by a distinct perceptual cue, the distal convexity...third the knapper responded to changing conditions of the core, adjusting technique to maximize Levallois flake size and maintain core productivity. Fourth, there was an overarching hierarchy to the entire task, with an overall goal (Levallois flakes), subroutines (the phases), and sub-subroutines (identify distal convexity, configure lateral convexity, prepare platform, strike off Levallois flake). This was not ad hoc flaking or a rote sequence. It was a flexible strategy...finally the knapper followed at least one rule: rotate the core 90 degrees before examining for a new distal convexity.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge.

Thomas Wynn (left), and Frederick Collidge (right)

Wooden Artifacts

Neanderthals did not only master stone, but had advanced wooden tools as well. While wooden objects are rarely found, Mousterian tools have been found on Greek islands suggesting that Neanderthals arrived there via (dugout) canoes around 110 kya. Other Neanderthal tools found on Crete have been dated to around 170 kya, although they could be from Homo Erectus (which only intensifies the significance of the findings). It is known that Homo Floresiensis traveled to the Indonesian island of Flores around 1 million years ago, most likely in a dugout canoe. In Schoningen Germany researchers found 8 wooden throwing spears in a coal mine. These have been dated to around 380-400 kya and were probably made by Homo Heidelbergensis. This is the first evidence of big game hunting. These throwing spears have been designed to have a center of gravity in the front third of the shaft, similar to professional javelins today. If Heidelbergensis was using wooden throwing spears hundreds of thousands of years before Neanderthals, it is likely that Neanderthals had inherited this technology. A Mousterian point has also been found lodged in an animal vertebra delivered with a parabolic trajectory, lending more weight to Neanderthal javelin use. Other finds at Schoningen were a charred wooden skewer, a wooden throwing stick (boomerang), and most importantly sticks incised at one end which may have been mounts for stone blades. If this is the case, these are the first composite weapons (a hatchet) that our genus made. Since almost all wooden tools degrade, it is not too far fetched to think that the later Neanderthals and humans kept using these pieces of technology which became invisible to the archaeological record. If that is the case, then Neanderthals had composite one handed weapons. One single cache of wooden weapons and the entire history of technology is rewritten, Homo Heidelbergensis were the master craftsmen of their era. What else is out there waiting to be discovered?

One of the Schoningen Throwing Spears

An artist's depiction of a flint Mousterian hatchet

A comparison between Homo Sapiens and Homo Floresiensis. A 2014 study by Robert Eckhardt and others concluded that Homo Floresiensis was in fact a human with down syndrome, and not a distinct species. Kudos to the random person's shirt

While it is known that Homo Habilis picked food out of its teeth starting between 1.9-1.6 million years ago, it is not known when the toothpick was invented. A recent discovery of a Neanderthal tooth has revealed that this individual had an oral disease which created painful inflammation. This tooth also included grooves which were most likely made by a toothpick. “This individual attempted to alleviate the discomfort caused by periodontal disease. This disease usually causes bloody and inflamed gums, so the systematic use of toothpicks could mitigate sore gums.” -Marina Lozano. While the toothpick seems like a minor invention, it is the first evidence of the adaption of technology to dental hygiene.

Clothing and Shelter

Neanderthals, like humans, shared a desire to remove themselves from inclement weather. At Molodova Ukraine, Neanderthals created a large mammoth bone structure around 44 kya. This circular structure was up to 26 feet across at its widest point, and included 116 bones including mammoth skulls, jaws, leg bones, and 14 tusks. Some bones were decorated with carvings and ochre. Inside were 25 hearths showing that it was occupied over a long course of time. This structure could fit a large family, maybe multiple families. “This mammoth bone structure could be described as the basement of a wooden cover or as a windscreen...Neanderthals purposely chose large bones of the largest available mammal, the woolly mammoth, to build a structure...The mammoth bones have been deliberately selected – long and flat bones, tusks, and connected vertebrae – and were circularly arranged.” -Laetitia Demay. Even when Neanderthals chose to live in caves, they generally selected caves with south-facing openings for maximal sunlight. At Bruniquel Cave in France around 47.6 kya Neanderthals left artifacts hundreds of feet deep within the cave, as well as leaving smoke residue high on walls (suggesting that they used torches to guide their way).

Paleolithic clothing and tools, by Emmanuel Roudier

Neanderthals were not the only members of our genus to build structures. At Terra Amata in France, Homo Heidelbergensis around 400-200 kya built structures up to 49 feet long which would fit multiple families. The evidence of this building and its size are primarily from post holes, and of course any extrapolations from such evidence are disputed. Another even older site, discovered near Tokyo Japan, includes 10 post holes in the shape of 2 pentagons. This possibly indicates two separate huts. The post holes on the southern side were slightly wider, suggesting this was the entrance. These huts were even older than the structure at Terra Amata, these huts were made by Homo Erectus around 500 kya.

A drawing of the structure at Terra Amata, made by Homo Heidelbergensis around 400-200 kya

An artist's impression of the structure at Terra Amata
A drawing of one of the structures near Tokyo Japan, made by Homo Erectus around 500 kya

Neanderthals, like humans, also shared a desire to cloth themselves. From a study by Nathan Wales, Neanderthals covered most of their bodies (up to 80%) when living in cold environments, less so during warmer periods. Neanderthals would have worn gloves and shoes, but only wore hats during the coldest periods. Neanderthals wore furs or animal skins, either tied or draped over the body. Whether they had tight fitting or tailored clothing is highly debated. Due to rapid heat loss, some researchers have suggested that Neanderthals would not have survived in the environments they did without close fitting clothing. A scraper made in Germany around 100 kya by Neanderthals had organic material soaked in tannin on it. This substance is found in oak bark and is used to make leather. If Neanderthals did make fitted clothing, they did not have the bone needles, but would use microliths or wooden tools to poke holes in leather for threading. Stone awls have been found, lending weight to this hypothesis. A Neanderthal at La Ferrassie has severe wear on its teeth, mirroring the wear on the teeth of older Inuit women of the 19th and early 20th century. Inuit women of this time period spent a lifetime chewing leather boots every morning to soften them, it is possible Neanderthals used the same technique. The emergence of clothing may also be tied to the evolution of clothing-specific body lice, which adapted to humans around 170 kya.

A Neanderthal stone awl

An artist's rendition of a Neanderthal wearing warm semi-fitted clothing and a necklace

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal wearing warm clothing, using a bone as a clasp
A striking reconstruction of a Neanderthal wearing an animal pelt head covering. "Neanderthal Female Reconstruction" by Viktor Deak

Mousterian Neanderthals wearing different types of winter hats, by Libor Balak

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman in woven grass and animal pelt clothing

Fire and Coal

Neanderthals not only built fires, but they used coal as well. At Les Canalettes France around 73.5 kya, Neanderthals exploited a local outcropping of coal, burning it with wood. This added to the duration of the burn and allowed easier rekindling at a later point. Wood and coal fires used 4x less wood than solely wooden fires, exhibiting clear knowledge of this material's combustible properties. Neanderthals probably struck flint and iron pyrite to create sparks, and would have conserved fire and transported it between sites. While the evidence of coal use is only at one site, the distribution of coal during this period suggests that coal use may have been widespread. In fact, the use of fire began before Neanderthals. The invention has been pinned down to around 400 kya by Homo Heidelbergensis. “Many scientists have thought Neanderthals had some fires but did not have continuous use of fire...we were not expecting to find a record of so many Neanderthal sites exhibiting such good evidence of the sustained use of fire over time.” -Paola Villa. The lack of fire before 400 kya did not stop early hominins from penetrating into the cold dark reaches of Europe. Homo Erectus was able to make camps in frozen ice age England around 800 kya, without fire or well fitting clothes. How they survived such brutal conditions, we do not know but, “This confirms a suspicion we had that went against the opinions of most scientists, who believed it was impossible for humans to penetrate into cold, temperate regions without fire.” -Paola Villa.

Homo Erectus, the paleo-arctic explorer. A reconstruction by paleoartist John Gurche

John Gurche working on one of his models

A Final Burst of Brilliance

While the vast majority of Neanderthal sites are either Acheulean or Mousterian, a third more complex culture called Chatelperronian is also associated with Neanderthals. It is understood that both Neanderthals and humans were using Chatelperronian between 45-40 kya. Chatelperronian continues the Levallois technique for stonework but is more complex than Mousterian in practically every way. Bone and ivory began to be used, with bone awls replacing Mousterian stone ones, and foot long ivory spear points have been found. The most significant difference is the adoption of strictly symbolic items: necklaces of intentionally pierced fox and marmot teeth, and rings and pendants made of ivory. Neanderthal and human Chatelperronian stretched across southern France and northern Spain, it was not some behavioral hiccup within a few clans. This complicates the story of late Neanderthal behavior, How did they know to make such items? Was this capacity for intellectual progress simply hiding within the Neanderthal mind, brought out by some extra-ordinary thought or human cultural influence? Or had Neanderthal culture been slowly building to this point following their unique path of symbolic and cultural development?

Chatelperronian Neanderthal bone and stone pendants, from Grotte du Renne

The most obvious explanation for Chatelperronian complexity is that humans taught them. Recent evidence from a 2012 paper by Jean-Jacques Hublin at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and a 2014 paper by Tom Higham at Oxford have shed interesting clues on the timing of this period. From J. J. Hublin, a Chatelperronian Neanderthal at Saint-Cesaire lived around 41.5 kya, with the Chatelperronian Neanderthal period at Grotte du Renne lasting from 44.5-41 kya. When Neanderthals began to use this culture around 45 kya, humans had only begun to spread across Europe. At that time, we were by the mouth of the Danube river and in Greece, possibly also in southern Italy. We were still hundreds of miles away from the Chatelperronians in southern France and northern Spain. This adds weight to the idea that Neanderthals independently invented this culture. Adding to this evidence is work by Fransesco d'Errico who laid out a novel method of determining human authorship in a 2013 speech at the ESHE (European Society for Human Evolution). Due to his team's research at the University of Bordeaux, they found a noticeable difference between Neanderthal Chatelperronian and human Chatelperronian. This difference is in the sequence of steps in its production, both humans and Neanderthals were making the same tools yet with different production processes. If this is the case, then Neanderthals were probably not copying their human instructors, but had invented a new method to make such items.

If Neanderthals created Chatelperronian at around 45 kya then the later human populations who used it must have picked it up from them. This is an astounding example of behavioral flexibility on both our parts, their unique act of invention and our ability to learn. This is strong evidence that Neanderthals had the same mental and behavioral complexity as Anatomically Modern Humans. “The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there.” -Paola Villa.

A Chatelperronian Neanderthal bone necklace from Grotte du Renne Cave, France


While Neanderthal technology halted with their extinction, the tools and hand axes they used stayed put in the earth. Tens of thousands of years later, humans would find these unknown objects across the world. Not quite sure what they were, hand axes and flint arrowheads acquired supernatural properties, they were called Thunderstones. In the classical era, Romans would sew thunderstones with bits of coral into dog collars as a remedy against canine insanity. In Sweden they offer protection against elves and in Britain protection against both elves and fairies. In Scandinavia in general they were worshiped as family gods to ward away spells and witchcraft. As an offering beer was poured over them, and they were sometimes anointed with butter. In Switzerland hand axes were tied to a sling, whirled three times, and flung at your front door. This was to prevent lightning strikes. In Italy thunderstones were hung around children's necks which protected against illness and the evil eye. In the French Alps they protect sheep, and in France in general were thought to ease childbirth. In the late 1600s a French ambassador gave a hand axe to the Prince-Bishop of Verdun as a magical healing amulet, it is still in the museum of Nancy today. In Britain they were called elf-shot, since they were shot by fairies to bewitch people. This phenomenon does not stop at the western world, in Burma thunderstones are used to ward off appendicitis and in Japan they are used to cure boils and ulcers.

In addition to Europe and Asia, the idea that such objects represented supernatural power was also found in the Americas. The Pawnee have an origin myth that they were given stone tools and weapons by the Morning Star. The K'iche' of Guatemala have a myth that a piece of flint fell from the sky and broke into 1600 pieces, each which became a god. As Europe expanded into the new world, its myths followed suit. In North Carolina and Alabama there was a tradition that if thunderstones were put in a fire they would protect your chickens from hawks. In Brazil they were used as a divining stone in order to locate gold, treasure, or water. These ideas most likely stem from the European myth that thunderstones protected domestic animals.

This myth began to fall apart even by the late 1500s. Michael Mercati thought that thunderstones were weapons of early races of men. In 1723 Antoine Laurent de Jussieu addressed the French academy with a paper entitled The Origin and Uses of Thunder-Stones which showed that travelers from around the world had brought stone weapons back to France, and they were the same as native thunderstones. The next year in 1724 Joseph-Francois Lafitau published a book showing a similarity between aboriginal customs and early Europeans. By 1800, John Frere published an article which included the first published picture of a hand axe. The demystification continued throughout the 19th century, with Charles Lyell's 1863 Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man resolving the dispute.