New research sheds light on innovative Neanderthal knives

Neanderthal model
Source: unknown author (via Pikist)
New research analysing the emergence of Neanderthal bi-facially worked knives suggests the species had innovative technological methods.

By Rowenna Hoskin | Science Editor

The cause of Neanderthal extinction is a mystery to scientists; did Homosapiens kill them, did disease? Did Homosapiens outcompete Neanderthals for resources? Did Neanderthals interbreed themselves to the point of extinction or were they simply not able to adapt to the fluctuating climate?

Having to adapt to the much harsher weather of the interglacial period, Neanderthals developed more complex tools according to the researchers from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) and Università degli Studi die Ferrara (UNIFE). This conclusion was based on their findings after excavating Sesselfelsgrotte, a cave in Lower Bavaria.  

Neanderthals were a subspecies of archaic human who  lived approximately 400,000 – 40,000 years ago in large areas across Europe and the Middle East, even as far as Siberia. They used tools consisting of wood and glass-like rock; spears and knives being just some of the artefacts that have been found. 

The tools changed around 100,000 years ago, from uni-facial knives (sharpened along one edge) and sharp flakes to bi-facial knives (two sharp edges) with a blunt handle made out of the same material.

Researchers call this type of knife a Keilmesser; its backed, asymmetrical bi-facial properties vary in shapes and sizes. The variation led scientists to question whether or not the knives differed from sub-group to sub-group of Neanderthal or if the different shapes and sizes were  for different functional purposes.  

‘Keilmesser are a reaction to the highly mobile lifestyle during the first half of the last ice age. As they could be sharpened again as and when necessary, they were able to be used for a long time – almost like a swiss army knife today,’ says Prof. Dr. Thorsten Uthmeier from the Institute of prehistory and Early History at FAU. 

These changes occurred around the same time as the last ice age, suggesting that this change was a result of dealing with a fluctuating climate. With less resources available due to icy conditions, the species would have had to travel long distances to find food; to have a longer lasting knife means less time spent crafting knives and more time spent searching for food.  

‘However, people often forget that bi-facially worked knives were not the only tools Neanderthals had. Backed knives from the Neanderthal period are surprisingly varied … Our research uses the possibilities offered by digital analysis of 3D models to discover similarities and differences between the various types of knives using statistical methods’

adds his Italian colleague Dr David Delpiano from Sezione de Scienze Preistoriche e Antropologiche at UNIFE.

After excavating the cave, they found over 100,000 artefacts and countless hunting remains left behind; they even found a Neanderthal burial. 

Researchers have analysed the most significant knife-like tools using 3D scans produced in collaboration with Prof. Dr Marc Stamminger and Dr Frank Bauer from the Chair of Visual Computing at the department of Computer Science at FAU.

By using this technology to analyse the artefacts, researchers were able to record the form and the properties extremely precisely. 

‘The technical repertoire used to create Keilmesser is not only direct proof of the advanced planning skills of our extinct relatives, but also a strategical reaction to the restrictions imposed upon them by adverse natural conditions,’

says Uthmeir, professor for Early Prehistory and Archaeology of prehistoric Hunters and Gatherers at FAU. 

The adverse natural conditions that he is talking about are the climate changes at the end of the last interglacial period more than 100,000 years ago. These consisted of intensely cold phases during the next Weichsel glacial period which began more than 60,000 years ago. This severely cold period caused a decline in resources as species were affected, with less food to eat Neanderthals were forced to adapt to a more mobile lifestyle. Travelling longer distances to find food, Neanderthals would have found longer lasting tools more useful than short-span ones. 

Perhaps using their simple uni-facial worked knives as a starting point, they formed bi-facial knives which could be used for a much longer span of time due to the stability created from the back and the asymmetrical volumetric scheme – allowing for a maintained effectiveness. 

To plan and develop this type of knife needs post-determination to make it suitable for attaching a handle and a prehensive grip. As such, these tools are important as they demonstrate the behavioural and cognitive advances of Neanderthals during the palaeolithic age. 

‘Unlike some people have claimed, the disappearance of the Neanderthal cannot have been a result of lack of innovation or methodical thinking,’

says Uthmeier. 

The crafting of bi-facial knives around the time of a fluctuating climate demonstrates the Neanderthal’s ability to innovate and adapt; this suggests that their extinction was not caused by an incapacity to change their behaviour in accordance to new challenges. Having to invent new ways of using tools in order to survive, the Neanderthal did not die out without a fight.


Science and Technology Rowenna Hoskin

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