These 90,000 year old tools were not made by Homo sapiens

Rios-Garaizar et al./PLOS One

Archaeological excavations in the North of Spain a few weeks ago unearthed two wooden tools aged around 90,000 years old. Interestingly, it appears that these tools were not made by Homo sapiens, but by our more ancient cousins, the Neanderthals. 

The Aranbaltza site in Spain was occupied by several generations of Neanderthals over the course of millennia, according to researchers from the Spanish centre for research in human evolution (CENIEH). A few weeks ago, they found among the sediment two new wooden tools, dating back around 90,000 years (to the mid Paleolithic era), an age in which Neanderthals inhabited Europe. These tools are very rare. As wood is organic matter which typically decomposes, wooden tools linked to early human history are often lost.

These tools can only be preserved in very specific environments -such as the waterlogged sediments of Aranbaltza. One of the two tools recovered has been the object of a research study, and it is currently with a team from the CENIEH led by archaeologist Joseba Rios-Garaizar. The researchers note that the wear observed on the point, produced by repeated mechanical stress, indicates that it was used to dig up food such as tubers and clams, to dig up stones or to dig holes in which to light fires.

“The few available direct and indirect lines of evidence suggest that wood played a significant role in Neanderthal technological adaptations”, is stated in the article. Wood is in fact malleable enough to be used to make a diverse array of tools that would be impossible to make with stone, and very difficult to make from bone, which is limited in size and more difficult to work with. According to the analyses, this tool would have been made from a yew trunk that was cut lengthwise in half.

The team believe that one of the halves appears to have been charred and hardened using fire, and scraped with a stone object to create the pointed shape of the digging tool. Although it was rare for Neanderthals to use stone tools, it is not entirely unheard of. Wooden weapons dating back 300,000 years were discovered in German in 1995. An article published earlier this year also points to the presence of tools dating back 171,000 years in Tuscany, Italy.

Although they are not as old, these new tools contribute nonetheless to the theory that the use of wooden tools was widespread throughout Paleolithic Europe. “The Early and Late Middle Palaeolithic in the region are characterised by great behavioural variability”, explain the researchers, noting a few examples in point –” long-distance transport of lithic raw materials, the trend towards microlithisation, the use of complex hunting technologies, the fire control and use, use of bone tools, a certain degree of prey specialisation or the exploitation of marine resources”.

You can find all the details of this study in the journal PLOS One.