Fiery re-creations show how Neandertals could have easily made tar

Burning sticky goo may not have required the mastery of fire


NEANDER-TAR  Using a simple experimental technique, researchers collected tar in a birch-bark vessel. This method, which could have been used by Neandertals as early as 200,000 years ago, consists of placing embers from a fire over a roll of burning birch bark positioned upright in a small pit.

P. Kozowyk

Neandertals took stick-to-itiveness to a new level. Using just scraps of wood and hot embers, our evolutionary cousins figured out how to make tar, a revolutionary adhesive that they used to make formidable spears, chopping tools and other implements by attaching sharp-edged stones to handles, a new study suggests.

Researchers already knew that tar-coated stones date to at least 200,000 years ago at Neandertal sites in Europe, well before the earliest known evidence of tar production by Homo sapiens, around 70,000 years ago in Africa. Now, archaeologist Paul Kozowyk of Leiden University in the Netherlands and colleagues have re-created the methods that these extinct members of the human genus could have used to produce tar.

Three straightforward techniques could have yielded enough adhesive for Neandertals’ purposes, Kozowyk’s team reports August 31 in Scientific Reports. Previous studies have found that tar lumps found at Neandertal sites derive from birch bark. Neandertal tar makers didn’t need ceramic containers such as kilns and didn’t have to heat the bark to precise temperatures, the scientists conclude.

These findings fuel another burning question about Neandertals: whether they had mastered the art of building and controlling a fire. Some researchers suspect that Neandertals had specialized knowledge of fire control and used it to make adhesives; others contend that Neandertals only exploited the remnants of wildfires. The new study suggests they could have invented low-tech ways to make tar with fires, but it’s not clear whether those fires were intentionally lit.

 “This new paper demystifies the prehistoric development of birch-bark tar production, showing that it was not predicated on advanced cognitive or technical skills but on knowledge of familiar, readily available materials,” says archaeologist Daniel Adler of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, who did not participate in the study.

Kozowyk’s group tested each of three tar-making techniques between five and 11 times. The lowest-tech approach consisted of rolling up a piece of birch bark, tying it with wood fiber and covering it in a mound of ashes and embers from a wood fire. Tar formed between bark layers and was scraped off the unrolled surface. The experimenters collected up to about one gram of tar this way.

A second strategy involved igniting a roll of birch bark at one end and placing it in a small pit. In some cases, embers were placed on top of the bark. The researchers either scraped tar off bark layers or collected it as it dripped onto a rock, strip of bark or a piece of bark folded into a cup. The most tar gathered with this method, about 1.8 grams, was in a trial using a birch-bark cup placed beneath a bark roll with its lit side up and covered in embers.

Repeating either the ash-mound or pit-roll techniques once or twice would yield the relatively small quantity of tar found at one Neandertal site in Europe, the researchers say. Between six and 11 repetitions would produce a tar haul equal to that previously unearthed at another European site.

In a third technique, the scientists placed a birch-bark vessel for collecting tar into a small pit. They placed a layer of twigs across the top of the pit and placed pebbles on top, then added a large, loose bark roll covered in a dome-shaped coat of wet soil. A fire was then lit on the earthen structure. This method often failed to produce anything. But after some practice with the technique, one trial resulted in 15.7 grams of tar — enough to make a lump comparable in size to the largest chunks found at Neandertal sites.

An important key to making tar was reaching the right heat level. Temperatures inside bark rolls, vessels, fires and embers varied greatly, but at some point each procedure heated bark rolls to between around 200˚ and 400˚ Celsius, Kozowyk says. In that relatively broad temperature range, tar can be produced from birch bark, he contends.

If they exploited naturally occurring fires, Neandertal tar makers had limited time and probably relied on a simple technique such as ash mounds, Kozowyk proposes. If Neandertals knew how to start and maintain fires, they could have pursued more complex approaches.

Some researchers say that excavations point to sporadic use of fire by Neandertals, probably during warm, humid months when lightning strikes ignited wildfires. But other investigators contend that extinct Homo species, including Neandertals, built campfires (SN: 5/5/12, p. 18).

Whatever the case, Kozowyk says, “Neandertals could have invented tar with only basic knowledge of fire and birch bark.”

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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