Advanced birch tar production of Neanderthals reveals their cognitive complexity

New research uncovers Neanderthals' advanced cognitive abilities through the complex technique of birch tar production, challenging traditional views on human intelligence and cultural development.
Kavita Verma
Tar extraction methods Neanderthals might have used
Tar extraction methods Neanderthals might have used

Paul Kozowyk 

Scientists have discovered evidence of the advanced cognitive abilities of Neanderthals, proving that they were not just primitive beings. A study conducted recently by researchers at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen in Germany sheds light on the complex technique Neanderthals used to create birch tar, a sticky glue that they used to connect stone to bone and wood in tools and weapons.

The study, titled "Production method of the Königsaue birch tar documents cumulative culture in Neanderthals," published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, compared different techniques of creating birch tar to the chemical remnants found on ancient Neanderthal tools. The findings challenge the notion that modern humans were the first to develop complex manufacturing processes.

Uncovering Neanderthals' advanced technique for Birch Tar production

Earlier, it was believed that Neanderthals either found birch tar after a fire or used a simple production method. However, scientists have discovered that Neanderthals employed a more effective method that involves a step-wise process of oxygen-restricted distillation of underground heating to extract the synthetic adhesive. This technique indicates Neanderthals’ cognitive complexity and precedes any known adaptation by modern humans by 100,000 years.

The researchers conducted an experimental archaeology to test the method used by Neanderthals. They recreated five techniques for extracting birch tar, two above-ground and three below-ground. They could compare these results with the ancient birch tar artifacts by analyzing the extracted tar using different scientific methods such as infrared spectroscopy, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, and micro-computed tomography.

This experiment's results indicate a clear marking on the tar that distinguished between above-ground and below-ground approaches, depending on oxygen availability during extraction. Due to the interplay of soil minerals and the absence of soot-related carbons in above-ground methods, the ancient artifacts matched the below-ground manufacturing process.

Based on its complexity, it is likely that the Neanderthal birch tar production method was not created on the spot but rather evolved through experimentation. According to the study's authors, this discovery calls into question the view that human intelligence is an exceptional trait and shows the cumulative cultural capabilities of Neanderthals.

Reassessing Neanderthals' technological advancements and cognitive abilities

According to the growing archaeological evidence, Neanderthals were more advanced than previously believed. They could use machinery and manufacturing methods that were long thought to be unique to modern humans. The study's authors claim that "Neanderthal birch tar making seems to be the first documented manifestation of this kind in human evolution."

This study challenges our perceptions of human intelligence and enhances our understanding of Neanderthals. It emphasizes that not only modern people can create complicated manufacturing processes and material synthesis. Our ancestors, the Neanderthals, were also capable of remarkable cognitive accomplishments that influenced how we perceive the development of human intelligence.

Study Abstract: 

Birch tar is the oldest synthetic substance made by early humans. The earliest such artefacts are associated with Neanderthals. According to traditional interpretations, their study allows understanding Neanderthal tool behaviours, skills and cultural evolution. However, recent work has found that birch tar can also be produced with simple processes, or even result from fortuitous accidents. Even though these findings suggest that birch tar per se is not a proxy for cognition, they do not shed light on the process by which Neanderthals produced it, and, therefore, cannot evaluate the implications of that behaviour. Here, we address the question of how tar was made by Neanderthals. Through a comparative chemical analysis of the two exceptional birch tar pieces from Königsaue (Germany) and a large reference birch tar collection made with Stone Age techniques, we found that Neanderthals did not use the simplest method to make tar. Rather, they distilled tar in an intentionally created underground environment that restricted oxygen flow and remained invisible during the process. This degree of complexity is unlikely to have been invented spontaneously. Our results suggest that Neanderthals invented or developed this process based on previous simpler methods and constitute one of the clearest indicators of cumulative cultural evolution in the European Middle Palaeolithic. recent study

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