Our relationship to Neanderthals has been a point of contention for over a century. It all began with an inaccurate reconstruction of the first Neanderthal ever found, which portrayed them as brutish, stooped-over cavemen (turns out, that Neanderthal was an injured old man with arthritis).
But within the last half century, scientists have noticed the many biological and behavioral similarities that show just how close our species are. While these similarities are clear from hard objects like bones and tools, perishable objects, which comprise the majority of material culture items in humans, have been lacking.
Now, scientists have discovered a Neanderthal feat that hammers another nail in the coffin of supposed Neanderthal inferiority. Last month, an international team of researchers found a small section of a twisted cord attached to a stone flake in Neanderthal site in southeastern France, dated to over 40,000 years old. This constitutes the oldest direct evidence of fiber technology ever found.
When artifacts are recovered from archaeological sites, they are generally imaged using high powered microscopes to zoom in on tiny marks and details on the stones. Previously, plant fibers had been found on stones at this site, but they were too poorly preserved to be interpreted. When the team examined this particular flake, they were surprised to find three distinct twisted fibers, which were then twisted together in the opposite direction to form a 3-ply cord.
While it may not sound like much, this piece of string hints at something much more significant. For one, extracting and manipulating plant fibers requires working memory, as well as understanding plant seasonality and the concept of numbers. Also, such cords are the building blocks for creating other textiles, such as baskets, fabrics, and nets. Once adopted, these objects would have been indispensable in daily life.
This little piece of string provides unprecedented insight into the lives of our extinct relatives, which, despite an abundance of genetic, archaeological, and skeletal data, have been extremely difficult to interpret. It seems as though we humans aren’t as unique as we like to think.