New Evidence Shows Humans, Neanderthals Shared Stone Tool Technology

Turns out modern humans weren’t the only ones to use Nubian Levallois technology to craft stone tools.

The view from Shukbah Cave (Credit: Amos Frumkin)

(CN) — Neanderthals used stone-shaping technology once thought to be used exclusively by homo sapiens, in a discovery revealed this week that has scientists rethinking how ancient humans developed.

Researchers discovered stone tools in cave sites in the Levant, a historical region in the present-day Middle East, belonging to Neanderthal communities, distant cousins of modern humans.

In a study published Monday in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany detailed their findings of the use of Nubian Levallois technology that helped ancient humans craft stone tools by chipping away at stone to make weapons such as spearheads.

The researchers looked at fossils retrieved from the Shukbah Cave, located in the Palestinian territories. What they discovered alongside the stone-shaping technology was the tooth of an approximately 9-year-old Neanderthal child.

“Sites where hominin fossils are directly associated with stone tool assemblages remain a rarity — but the study of both fossils and tools is critical for understanding hominin occupations of Shukbah Cave and the larger region,” said lead author Jimbob Blinkhorn, with the Institute.

The cave was first discovered by Dorothy Garrod in 1928, but the fossils, including the Neanderthal tooth, were kept away from researchers in a private collection. Only recently was the tooth re-identified at the Natural History Museum in London.

“Professor Garrod immediately saw how distinctive this tooth was. We’ve examined the size, shape and both the external and internal 3D structure of the tooth, and compared that to Holocene and Pleistocene Homo sapiens and Neanderthal specimens. This has enabled us to clearly characterise the tooth as belonging to an approximately 9 year old Neanderthal child,” said Clément Zanolli of the Université de Bordeaux in France. “Shukbah marks the southernmost extent of the Neanderthal range known to date.”

Scientists have recently thought of Nubian Levallois as exclusive to homo sapiens, even though other stone tool technologies were used by both homo sapiens and Neanderthals. 

“Illustrations of the stone tool collections from Shukbah hinted at the presence of Nubian Levallois technology so we revisited the collections to investigate further. In the end, we identified many more artifacts produced using the Nubian Levallois methods than we had anticipated,” Blinkhorn said. “This is the first time they’ve been found in direct association with Neanderthal fossils, which suggests we can’t make a simple link between this technology and Homo sapiens.”

“This study highlights the geographic range of Neanderthal populations and their behavioral flexibility, but also issues a timely note of caution that there are no straightforward links between particular hominins and specific stone tool technologies,” said Professor Simon Blockley of the University of London in the U.K.

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