By the time modern humans arrived in Europe, Neanderthals had already made the continent their home. What’s more, they were already adopting behaviors that would later be characteristic of humans — including the development of a specialized tool still used by leather craftspeople today.
It’s called the lissoir — and it’s the oldest specialized bone tool ever found in Europe. Fashioned from long, flexible ribs of deer, it was likely used to work animal hides to make them softer, tougher, shinier, and more resistant to water. Archaeologists have discovered Neanderthal tools before, but nothing quite like this.
Tools are considered “specialized” when they take advantage of particular properties, like toughness or flexibility. A device like a lissoir could not have been made, say, from stone or wood. This particular tool, because it was fashioned from a bone, could be flexed as it was pressed onto a hide.
Fragments of four lissoirs were found at two Neanderthal sites in southwest France, the details of which can be found in a new PNAS paper authored by Marie Soressi and her team.
And as noted, the design was so good that it’s still used today. They’re called smoothers or burnishers, and they’re used by leather workers to create such items as handbags.
Indeed, what makes this discovery particularly remarkable is that, at about 50,000 years old, the bone tools predate the arrival of Homo sapiens and the onset of the so-called “replacement period” which began no earlier than 40,000 years ago (though this figure is contentious). This is a strong indication that Neanderthals invented the lissoir, rather than humans. And in fact, it’s conceivable that humans, who frequently interacted with Neanderthals, copied the design from them.
And that's absolutely wild if you think about it. We may actually be using a technology today that was invented by Neanderthals!
"If Neanderthals developed this type of bone tool on their own, it is possible that modern humans then acquired this technology from Neanderthals," said Soressi in a statement. "This is the first possible evidence for transmission [of culture] from Neanderthals to our direct ancestors.… It might be one or perhaps even the only heritage from Neanderthal times that our society is still using today."
That said, the researchers could not incontrovertibly rule out the possibility that modern humans arrived in Europe earlier than what’s generally accepted, and that the lissoirs were developed as a result of their influence. Additionally, the discovery of one set of tools does not necessarily indicate the existence of others; it could have been a one time thing developed by a rather crafty Neanderthal. It’s also possible, of course, that the technologies were developed by the Neanderthals and humans independently.
It’s worth noting however, that humans did not settle at Pech-de-l’Azé or Abri Peyrony, the location of the archaeological find.
Read the entire study at PNAS: “Neandertals made the first specialized bone tools in Europe.”
Images: Abri Peyrony/Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects. Top image of Neanderthal: Reconstruction by Kennis & Kennis, photograph by Joe McNally.