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L'industrie oubliée de Néandertal - The forgotten industry of Neanderthal

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - LION (L'industrie oubliée de Néandertal - The forgotten industry of Neanderthal)

Reporting period: 2019-10-01 to 2021-09-30

In Western Europe, the arrival of Anatomically Modern Human (Sapiens) and the disappearance of the last Neandertals, around 40,000 years BP, marked the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic transition. Significant changes occurred in the material cultures. Anatomically Modern Human brought with him a great diversity of production attesting new practices. Bone material became widely used for manufacturing objects such as ornaments, figurines or weapons, whose functional and social specialisation was clearly expressed through a thorough shaping, mostly done by scraping or abrasion. This has resulted in types that are today intelligible to us. In contrast, the absence of bone objects shaped in the same way in the Middle Palaeolithic led to think that Neanderthal did not produce bone industry and that this deficiency was probably due to a cognitive difference between species.

For a long time, the “retouchers”, used in lithic knapping, were the only Neanderthal bone tools frequently reported. Collected among butchery remains, unshaped and discarded in situ after a short-term use, they gave a picture of a poorly mastered and opportunistic use of bone. Other types of tool were identified from time to time, but the rarity of specimens, their minimal shaping, often done by percussion as for lithic tools, and the difficulty of determining their function, reinforced the idea that Neanderthal did not understand the specificities of the bone material.

The recent discovery of more than one thousand bone tools at the Neanderthal site of Chagyrskaya cave in Siberia, by means of a technological and use-wear analysis applied to faunal remains, allowed to question this assertion. The number of tools, their diversity and recurrence are characteristic of an industry and show that these Siberian Neanderthals made a daily use of bone to meet specific needs. Nevertheless, we did not know if this isolated discovery was a regional particularity or if it could be a more general phenomenon, disregarded due to the lack of an adequate conceptual and methodological frameworks. To test these hypotheses, we searched, with the same analytical grid as applied at Chagyrskaya cave, for bone tools in Neanderthal sites located in Western Europe, where the first Neanderthal bone tools were mentioned more than a century ago.
We examined the faunal assemblages from several archaeological sites including: Trou Magrite (Pont-à-Lesse, Belgium), Trou à l’Wesse (Modave, Belgium), Chez-Pinaud (Jonzac, France) and Lartet (Montbron, France). Bone tools were found in each of them. The results obtained at Chez-Pinaud site are particularly interesting. The new excavations, begun in 2019, have yielded 173 bone tools, i.e. nearly 4% of the faunal remains: retouchers, bevelled tools, knapped tools and blunted-end tools with similarities to those of the Chagyrskaya cave, although the two sites are 7000km and ten millennia apart. Minimally shaped, mostly by percussion, their forms have no historical or ethnographical equivalent that allow to precisely understand their manufacture process and to determine their function. We thus undertook to build a large experimental frame of reference. The experiments concerned the blanks debitage and shaping as well as the tools utilisation for different tasks in accordance with the archaeological contexts. About 50 long bones of cow, deer, horse and sheep provided 174 suitable flacks for shaping Neanderthal-type tools. More than one hundred bone tools were used in flint knapping, woodworking, bark collect, plant harvesting, hide working, butchery and soil digging. In addition to a classical techno-functional analysis of the damage of the bone tools surface, from macroscopic to microscopic observation scale, we developed an original methodology for internal use-wear analysis in microtomography. Due to the plastic properties of the bone material, bone tools can deform and crack under stress. Our aim was, through microtomography - a non-destructive X-ray imaging technique usually used in the medical field - to verify the presence of internal damages into the bone tools, characterise them and understand their relationship to manufacturing and use process. More than 122 microtomographic scans were performed on archaeological and experimental samples, processed, analysed and compared.

Thanks to this work, the objectives have been achieved. It demonstrates than a Mousterian bone industry does exist in Western European sites and provides further evidence confirming that it was a common component of the Neanderthals productions. Microtomographic analysis made it possible to observe internal damages linked to manufacture and use of experimental tools and find similar features in the archaeological samples. They also shown that the damages differ according to the stress undergone by the tools. Internal damages can therefore be an additional clue, along with surface damages, for the characterisation and interpretation of bone tools manufacturing and function. These results open two new investigation fields. The Neanderthal bone industry, which was disregarded, has now to be systematically sought in Middle Palaeolithic sites across Eurasia. It will shed new light on the Neanderthals behaviour and will contribute to a better identification of their specificities. The development of an effective methodology for the recognition of internal markers from use and manufacture can be useful, not only for Neanderthal’s studies, but for all technological and functional analysis applied to any bone artefacts regardless of their age and maker. Data provided by our research, which can be easily shared because of the full 3D modelling of the tools, now need to be completed and specified through a broader application of the method.
The main contribution of the project was to highlight a new facet of the Neanderthal productions. The common utilisation of bone for manufacturing various tools shows that Neanderthal was well aware of the particular characteristics of this material. Just as bone retouchers allow for a fine and regular retouch that hammerstone does not, newly identified bone tools certainly meet specific needs that the lithic tools cannot fulfil. Neanderthal bone tools can no longer be considered as poorly mastered and opportunistic. The point here is not to erase differences between periods or human lineages, but rather to approach them in their systemic coherence with the least possible ideological bias.

We hope that the results of the LION project, which are already being disseminated through scientific articles and upcoming lectures, will encourage other researchers and students to invest in this topic, both archaeologically, by taking into account this new component of Neanderthal productions, and methodologically, by enriching the frame of reference for the technological and functional interpretation of the pre-Sapiens bone industries. We also hope, through online dissemination and public event, to reach a wider audience and contribute to change the way we use to look at the ancient humanities.
Neandertalian blunted-end bone tool, Chagyrskaya cave, µCT view, 3D model, photographic view
Use of Neandertalian knapped bone tools replicas for woodworking
Neandertalian knapped bone tool, Chagyrskaya cave