Neanderthals made the oldest known version of a specialized tool still used by leather craftspeople today, researchers say, suggesting that modern humans may have learned from Neanderthals how to make it.


Yolaine Maigrot of France's CNRS analyzed the way in which the bone tools were worn away from use on a softer material, such as animal hide, using the kind of repetitive motion that would be expected for the tool. (Abri Peyrony & Pech-de-l'Azé I Projects)

Lissoirs, or smoothers, are used to make leather softer, shiny and water-resistant. Fragments of four lissoirs made from deer ribs were found at two Neanderthal sites in southwest France, reports a paper to be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by an international team that includes University of British Columbia anthropologist Michael Richards.

Radiocarbon dating of bones near the oldest of the tools showed they were about 50,000 years old. That is well before the time of the most solid evidence of modern humans in Western Europe and older than any other similarly sophisticated bone tools.

"If Neanderthals developed this type of bone tool on their own, it is possible that modern humans then acquired this technology from Neanderthals," said Marie Soressi, an archeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who was the lead author of the report, in a statement.

'It might be one or perhaps even the only heritage from Neanderthal times that our society is still using today.' —Marie Soressi, Leiden University

"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."

Modern humans may have arrived earlier than thought

The researchers said they couldn't rule out the possibility that modern humans actually arrived in Europe earlier than currently known, and that the lissoirs are therefore a result of their influence.


The face of a Neanderthal man is displayed at the Neanderthal Museum in the northern Croatian town of Krapina. Neanderthals died out in Europe around 40,000 years ago, shortly after the arrival of modern humans. (Nikola Solic/Reuters)

Soressi noted, however, that available evidence suggests that when modern humans first arrived in Europe, around 40,000 years ago, they had only pointed tools, although they started to make lissoirs shortly after that.

Neanderthals died out in Europe around 40,000 years ago, shortly after the arrival of modern humans.

Just before they disappeared, Neanderthals started showing behaviours similar to those of modern humans, such as the use of specialized stone tools, small blades and body ornaments, leading to debates about whether those behaviours were the result of contact with modern humans, the researchers reported.

The latest finding adds new fuel to the debate.

Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, a professor at Mainz University who also wasn't involved with the study, told The Associated Press that the evidence was a bit thin to draw any conclusions about the interaction between the two groups.

"Based on this find, to make statements about the transition or the interaction between Neanderthals and modern humans… you really have to stretch the evidence very far to get to this conclusion," she said. 


The first of the four tools, called lissoirs, was found at the Neanderthal cave site of Pech-de-l’Azé in southwestern France. It was dated to approximately 50,000 years old. (Courtesy of the Pech-de-l’Azé I Project)

The lissoirs were excavated by Soressi and William Rendu of France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), alongside more typical Neanderthal stone tools and the bones of horses, deer, bison and other animals the Neanderthals would have hunted.

Yolaine Maigrot of France's CNRS analyzed the way in which the bone tools were worn away from use on a softer material, such as animal hide, using the kind of repetitive motion that would be expected for a lissoir.

Bone tools older than the lissoirs have been found at Neanderthal sites before, but none have been as sophisticated or specialized to take advantage of the properties of bone compared to stone, the researchers said.


A reconstruction shows how lissoirs, made of deer ribs, could be used to make animal hides more supple, shiny and water-resistant. The bottom half shows how the downward pressure ultimately results in a break that produces small fragments like those seen in three of the reported bones. (Courtesy of Abri Peyrony and Pech-de-l’Azé I Projects)

With files from the Associated Press