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2018-03-02 20:22:57   •   ID: 1743

(Pre)-Neanderthal Technology: What remained and what was lost in the Record

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 1 shows convergent elongated "points" or scrapers from Le Moustier and Fig. 2 large scrapers from different French sites coming from a 19th century collection. Some years ago these artifacts would have been an anchor-point in the suggestion that  the Neanderthals and their immediate ancestors in Eurasia were Dimwitted, Dull, Crude, Stupid Subhumans- an evolutionary failure.

Scrapers and Points made from stone were a signature of stasis- the repetitions of the unvarying same. But how could these hominins survive 250000 years or more in the harshest climates experienced by humans anywhere? Was Neanderthal technology really as simple as that? Fig.3 shows a normal sized Cordiform Handaxe and a minuscule cordiform from the same site (Saint-Julien de Liège) suggesting that Neanderthals were able to produce small and delicate instruments that could, without knowing their specific context, easily be taken as Neolithic arrowheads.

Fig. 3
Such delicate Mousterian artifacts have already been discussed in this blog. Technological studies of the last 25 yrs. have demonstrated, beyond the typological monotony, a remarkable diversification of Neanderthal lithic technologies since MIS8/7 (Levallois, Laminar, Quina, Discoid,Bifacial) well adapted to specific situations and tasks. Anyhow, one gets the impression that Neanderthal culture did not show the same acceleration of innovative trends that characterized Homo Sapiens. Maybe Neanderthals suggested their stable lithic system just as  “good enough” without looking for new solutions.

Until the 1980 we did not know much about non lithic artifacts before the Advent of Homo Sapiens, but these artifacts were remarkable enough.

At 400,000 years old, the yew-wood (Taxus baccata) Clacton "spear"-fragment* is the earliest known worked wooden artifact and has appeared in academic articles ever since its discovery in 1911 by Samuel Hazzledine Warren. It is a tipped and broken fragment of a larger artifact, and when found was 38,7 cm long, with a diameter of 3,9 cm and straight. But drying out during the first decades of storage it shrank to 36,7 cm by 3,7 cm and warped slightly into a curve.

Taxus is a genus of small coniferous trees or shrubs in the yew family Taxaceae. They are relatively slow-growing and can be very long-lived and reach heights of 2,5-20 m, with trunk girth averaging 5 m. They have reddish bark, lanceolate, flat, dark-green leaves 10-40 mm. Yew wood is reddish brown (with whiter sapwood), and is very springy and relatively soft (but not too soft) according to the Janka hardness test. These qualities have promoted its use in the production of bows and spears in prehistoric and historic times. One famous example is the unfinished bow made of yew wood from the Chalcolithic Tyrolean ice-man ("Ötzi").

First suggestions of its purpose included a digging stick, part of a trap, or a weapon for warding off other scavengers. This mirrored perceptions that early hominins were scavengers and not hunters. With changing paradigms and regarding the considerable effort expended in sharpening the tool, removing bark and smoothing the nodes, it became more probable that the Clacton fragment was indeed part of a thrusting or throwing spear. McNabb (2007) demonstrated that  that the most efficient tool from the associated Clactonian ensemble, for creating the Clacton spear is the Clactonian notch.

The underlying operational sequence for the Clacton spear fragment speaks for the presence of a considerable advanced cognitive level of its maker (presumable H. heidelbergensis). The recovery of a MIS5e yew wood spear associated with the carcass of a forest elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) at Lehringen (Lower Saxony) together with 27 Levallois flakes was made as early as 1948, but introduced into the international discussion only several decades later. This artifact is a strong argument for active hunting by Neanderthals

Thieme and Veil  (1988) showed that this yew stem had been carefully barked, the smaller branches were removed and that the tips are not exactly in the middle of the axis, but slightly to the side. Presumably, this technical detail is due to the fact, that the makers did not want to have the weak point of the medullary ray at the top, because this structure is the most vulnerable to damage during impact. Whether humans actually hunted the animal or just killed it when it was already trapped in the swamp, remains open to discussion. It was certainly butchered, as is equally attested for an elephant skeleton found at Gröbern, again at a lake-side, and again along with 27 Levallois artefacts.

The finds from Schöningen Lower Saxony) are of central importance and have completely redefined the discourse on Lower Paleolithic subsistence. In 1994, Thieme’s  team recovered eight spears in direct association with the bones of over a dozen horses in deposits dating to ca. 300k.a. (MIS9). This discovery led to a change in paradigms, namely that Homo before Homo sapiens was a poorly equipped scavenger, the hunted, but not the hunter.

Schöningen shows a Middle to Late Pleistocene sedimentary succession, locally up to 45 m thick, which has been preserved in an Elsterian tunnel valley. After deglaciation, the tunnel valley was re-filled during the Holsteinian (MIS9) interglacial. There was a long-lived interglacial lake which provided at its shores attractive site for animals and humans. The evaluation of these nearly in-situ embedded Paleo-landscapes at different sites and under various climatic conditions continues to be conducted by a large international team.

The immense area of 9400 m2 has been excavated until now making Schöningen one of the key sites for Lower Paleolithic archaeology in central Europe. My interest in this post is focused on two horizons: Schöningen 12 II-1 is situated in the deepest and warmest period of the sedimentary sequence at the shores of a Paleolake. Excavators recovered flint artifacts and numerous pieces of wood.

Thieme identified several wood artifacts, which he interpreted as hafting shafts (Thieme, 2007). The importance of hafting and the early use of adhesives has been discussed elsewhere in this blog (here and there).  Numerous carcasses with anthropogenic cut-marks from large animals were found, noteworthy among them the parts of a water buffalo (Bubalus murrensis) indicating to  climatic conditions warmer than today in Central Europe. Schöningen 13 II-4 represents Thieme's original "Spear Horizon"  dating to MIS9 with the Horse Butchery Site. Of the eight spears, seven are made of spruce (Picea sp.) And one of pine (Pinus sylvestris).

Like the Lehringen spear, the tips of the Schöningen spears are not exactly in the middle of the axis, but slightly to the side. Nine of them are interpreted as throwing spears (javelins) and one as a thrusting spear (lance). This interpretation was suggested from the comparison to ethnographic examples and the notion that even modern javelins compare very well to the characteristics of the Paleo-spers. In addition, a probable throwing stick and other unspecified wooden artifacts, nearly 1500 flints and bone tools were found. Numerous remains of horses , and the remains of at least 10 other species of large mammals complete the extraordinary findings. Other MIS9 sites at Schöningen are rather low density scatters, sometimes also with enlightening  observations: several sites with only a few artifacts, associated with bones showing impact scars and cut marks and a nearly complete aurochs (Bos primigenius) skeleton, associated (?) one flint flake showing use-wear traces.

Very recently Aranguren et al.  reported a set of wooden artifacts from a 170 k.a.-old Middle Paleolithic occupation at at Poggetti Vecchi  in southern Tuscany (Italy). Similar to Lehringen the artifacts were preserved in a calcareous mudstone deposited along a lake margin. Alongside with a Palaeoloxodon antiquus- fauna, the scientists found associated stone tools and anthropogenic modified wooden artifacts made of Boxwood, which  is among the hardiest and heaviest of European timbers. About 40  sticks, all fragmentary, some over 1 m long, rounded at one end and pointed at the other, were found. They provide the use of fire by Neanderthals in their fabrication. The excavators interpreted these sticks as digging sticks- but extended excavations and more material may change this interpretation.

The continuous use of wood during the timespan of MIS5-3 has recently reiterated by the finding of a beveled pointed wooden tool, interpreted as digging stick from the Aranbaltza III site in Spain.