This is the oldest known string. It was made by a Neandertal

A cord fragment was found clinging to a stone tool at a French archaeological site

SEM image of Neandetal string

A scanning electron microscope photo shows a closeup view of fibers that were twisted into a string by Neandertals as early as 52,000 years ago. The ancient string fragment is about 6.2 millimeters long.

M.-H. Moncel

In a new twist on Neandertals’ Stone Age accomplishments, our close evolutionary relatives wound bark fibers into strings that could have been used to make clothes, rope, nets and other practical but perishable items, a new study suggests.

A fragment of a string made from three bark fibers was found attached to a stone tool at a French Neandertal site. That tool was embedded in sediment dating from 52,000 to 41,000 years ago, say paleoanthropologist Bruce Hardy of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and colleagues.

Researchers previously had unearthed stone tools attached to individual, twisted fibers at the site, France’s Abri du Maras rock-shelter. Those individual fibers once may have been part of cords, too. But as a piece of an actual woven string, the new discovery — described April 9 in Scientific Reports — represents the oldest direct evidence of string making.

Previously, the earliest known cords were made by humans in western Asia, who twisted wild flax fibers into twine as early as around 32,000 years ago (SN: 9/10/09).

The ancient string found at the French Neandertal site may have been part of a cord that tied the stone tool to a handle, or may have come from a bag that once contained the tool, the researchers speculate.

Abri du Maras excavation site
Excavations at a Neandertal site in France called Abri du Maras (shown) uncovered a stone tool containing remnants of the oldest known string.M.-H. Moncel

Ancient string at Abri du Maras joins recent evidence suggesting that Neandertals thought and behaved no differently than Stone Age Homo sapiens did (SN: 3/26/20). Microscopic and molecular studies of the Abri du Maras string indicate that its fibers come from the inner bark of a tree such as pine. Neandertal string makers must have known about trees’ seasonal growth patterns, the researchers say. The best times for harvesting inner-bark fibers are from early spring to early summer, when fibers increase in size and thickness due to tree growth.

And the team suggests that a basic understanding of numbers would have also been needed to count predetermined numbers of fibers used to make strings, as well as to follow the numerical patterns in strings or cords needed to construct objects such as bags and nets.

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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