Neandertals used tools with versatility

Hand axes. Scrapers. Blades. These and other labels archaeologists put on Stone Age implements imply that ancient people used the tools in specific ways. However, a new study indicates that groups in western Asia used stone implements in more flexible ways, which gave them access to a varied diet of plants and meat over a span of nearly 50,000 years.

The area’s prehistoric residents–generally classified by researchers as Neandertals–maintained their versatile stone-tool practices even as major cultural changes rocked the late Stone Age world, according to a team led by Bruce L. Hardy of Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.

Hardy and his collaborator Marvin Kay of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville used microscopes to analyze 50 stone tools found in the Ukraine. Of the total, 31 had been previously unearthed at a site called Starosele and dated at between 40,000 and 80,000 years old. The remaining 19 implements came from the Buran Kaya III site and have an estimated age of 32,000 to 37,000 years.

These artifacts contain minute clues to their various uses, Hardy, Kay, and their colleagues report in the Sept. 11 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For instance, many teardrop-shaped scrapers from Starosele retain wood and starch fragments in grooves near their bases that were part of the binding for handles. Closer to their sharpened tips, these tools display remnants from efforts to process both plants and animals, including geese and other waterfowl.

Large sharpened stone points at Starosele were also attached to handles and probably served as both spears and cutting implements, the scientists say.

Apart from stylistic contrasts in how tools were manufactured at the two sites, microscopic remains and markings on the Buran Kaya III artifacts look much the same as those on the Starosele material, the researchers add.

In their view, Neandertal diets, at least in western Asia, incorporated a wider variety of plants and game than investigators have often assumed.

“This is an important study,” comments archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University. Microscopic data from the Ukrainian finds underscore the flexibility with which Neandertals employed stone tools, in Bar-Yosef’s view. Still, by approximately 30,000 years ago, populations of Neandertals and modern humans had developed distinctive social arrangements and hunting strategies, he theorizes.

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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