Maybe we ought to rethink those cavemen jokes. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have discovered specialized bone tools made by Neanderthals more than 40,000 years ago.

The discovery leads scientists to challenge the notion that Neanderthals gained their tool-making skills from Homo sapiens—modern humans.

Neanderthals lived from about 200,000 to 28,000 years ago. Modern humans migrated to Europe about 40,000 years ago. Although evidence reveals that Neanderthals had cultural expression similar to modern humans, many anthropologists argue that these similarities only appear once modern humans came into contact with the original European group.

But the recent finds, leather-working tools called lissoirs, pre-date the arrival of modern humans. Lissoirs have been discovered at later Neanderthal and modern human sites and researchers believe the tools were used to fashion animal hides—making them softer and more waterproof. Modern artisans use similar tools today.

The earlier lissoirs were discovered at two sites in southwestern France. Using both radiocarbon dating and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating to sediments at the site, the scientists estimate the date of the tools to close to 50,000 years ago, well before the arrival of modern humans.

“For now the bone tools from these two sites are one of the better pieces of evidence we have for Neanderthals developing on their own a technology previously associated only with modern humans,” explains Shannon McPherron, who discovered the lissoirs at one of the French excavation sites.

“If Neanderthals developed this type of bone tool on their own, it is possible that modern humans then acquired this technology from Neanderthals. Modern humans seem to have entered Europe with pointed bone-tools only, and soon after started to make lissoir[s]. This is the first possible evidence for transmission from Neanderthals to our direct ancestors,” says Marie Soressi, whose team found the bone tools at the other site.

Which species developed the tool first? We’ll let the anthropologists argue about that one…

The new findings are published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image courtesy of Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects

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