Neanderthals: Spinning to Kill?

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Neanderthals: Spinning to Kill?
Neanderthals: Spinning to Kill?

Archaeologists have found traces of a cord made 39-54 thousand years ago in the Abri-du-Maras cave in the south of France. A cord with a diameter of half a millimeter is woven from three fibers of tree bark, and in such a way that it becomes clear that the Neanderthals are adept at such activities. Why would this species, long considered primitive, need such a complex technology? One of the most likely answers is to craft sophisticated weapons. Alas, it did not help them. After a very short time, humans of the modern species brought even more advanced weapons to Europe from Africa, and, by a strange coincidence, the Neanderthals quickly became extinct. Here's what their newly discovered spinning skill tells us about.

Reconstruction of the Neanderthals

Thread spinning is a rather specific skill and, at first glance, it is not very clear why it could be needed at all in the Stone Age. Skins provide hunters with enough clothing, tendons allow them to be sewn, but spinning (where tendons are no longer enough), whatever one may say, is a very difficult technology.

It is very difficult to get strong handicraft fibers from herbs. Woody bast can be stronger, which is why, for example, the Polynesians used it. But the fact is that forests in Europe until the end of the ice ages were quite rare: trees grow poorly in cold and dry zones, one of which was then the Old World. And the low content of CO2 in the air is not particularly tolerated, and then it was several times lower than today. Therefore, the simple extraction of the desired bast sample often became a separate quest.

For example, the fiber from Abri du Maras is obtained from a coniferous tree, which itself did not grow in this zone at that time. That is, the Neanderthals went somewhere for it or exchanged it from their neighbors. Why such difficulties? Moreover, the Neanderthal cord consisted of three fibers at once, each of which was twisted clockwise, and then they were all woven together - counterclockwise. That is, this is a rather complex spinning: according to ethnographic materials, many "primitive" tribes studied by ethnographers in the 18th-20th centuries used simpler cords.

Detective cord

It can be said with a high degree of probability that yarn from a material similar to that found did not serve to create clothing. The bark of trees in Paleolithic Europe is a rarity, specifically in Abri du Maras there were no such trees at all. On the contrary, the skins of large animals are widespread: it is a by-product of hunting, which the Neanderthals were constantly engaged in.


And we know for sure that this species was excellent at making skins: in 2013, archaeologists consulted with the French firm Hermès, which produces expensive leather handbags, and the company's employees immediately recognized Neanderthal polishes, claiming that the same (and also bone) ones are used in their companies today. In other words, in terms of manual leather production, Neanderthals were at the level of the 21st century.

If you know how to work with such a common, strong and durable material as leather, then you will not be looking for a rare and less durable one - such as bast or coniferous bark. Of course, for no particular reason. For example, this: it is very difficult to make a strong cord with a diameter of 0.5 millimeters out of leather, similar to the one that archaeologists found in Abri du Maras.Plant fibers of small diameter under conditions of the Stone Age are much easier to obtain than to cut them out of the skin.


That is, the yarn found was needed for something where only a small diameter thread is suitable. The authors of the new work, who discovered a fragment of the cord, believe that it could have been part of a wicker bag, such as a string bag, but this is also doubtful. It is quite possible to make a bag out of leather - and ethnographers have repeatedly recorded this among the tribes of hunters. However, hunter-gatherers did not particularly notice the manufacture of woven staples from plant fiber.

But why would the Neanderthals pull the cord into some small hole? It is unlikely that we are talking about sewing. Firstly, no bone needles were found in them, in contrast to their contemporaries, the Denisovans. Secondly, for this purpose, in an environment with leather clothing, it is easier to use the tendons of animals caught in the hunt.

Stone Age Marshall Rod

In practice, it can be difficult to understand many details of the life of people in the distant past. We call the Stone Age “stone” not always thoroughly: in reality, people then hunted for meat with wooden implements (spears without tips), built rafts and crossed the sea straits on them, without using a single stone detail, and so on. But almost all non-stone materials are extremely poorly preserved, especially wood.

Therefore, it is often possible to understand something about the real life of a primitive person only by circumstantial evidence. One of them was the bâtons de commandement - the commander's staff, a strange artifact from the Stone Age in Europe, already from the era when it was dominated by Cro-Magnons.


This is a piece of antler (deer, but there are finds from a mammoth tusk, where deer were far away), slightly curved and with one or two holes at the wide end (however, in one case, the hole was at the narrow end). The discoverers of the wands could not understand why they were needed, and considered them signs of power - also because they had good examples of decorative carving: figurines of horses, wood grouses and other animals.

But in 1965, John Underwood (a sculptor by his main profession, and at the same time an amateur of experimental archeology) drew attention to the fact that in form such tools are very suitable for the role of a spear thrower. A number of experiments with modern copies of "commanders' wands" have shown that they can be used quite effectively together with spears and a cord threaded through a hole on the wide part of the wand, and the other end wound around the spear shaft (but not tied to it).

When thrown, the rope creates a long shoulder effect, greatly increasing the energy received by the spear. The flight range of a throwing javelin in experiments with modern replicas of wands increased by up to 43%. A rough idea of ​​the use of such rods for throwing javelins can be obtained from the amateur video below:

It would seem, the reader will ask, where do the Neanderthals have to do with it? The "Wands of Commanders" are a clear sign of the Cro-Magnons, the orbitals of Europe 40 thousand years ago. And, nevertheless, there is a connection. In excavations near the German Schönningen, preserved spruce throwing spears were found. Their exact copies showed that, due to their weight balance, they can be thrown perfectly, but extremely inconvenient to use in hand-to-hand combat.

The copies were made by the Heidelberg people, an early form of Neanderthals. Meanwhile, skeletons of horses were found near these copies. It is well known that a throwing spear without a tip can kill a large animal, but all examples of this kind known from ethnography refer to spears that are thrown with the help of a spear thrower. A spear thrown by a hand often has simply insufficient destructive power, and its flight speed is also low.

Neanderthals did not use the "commander's wands", it is. But, as we know from the experience of the Australian Aborigines and the Aztecs, the spear thrower is not necessarily made of bone.The Cro-Magnon predecessors in Europe could simply make such devices out of wood and also wrap them with a cord in order to lengthen the "shoulder" of a throwing weapon and thereby achieve a greater throwing range.

Does the found cord really indicate the "progressiveness" of the Neanderthals and their ability to count?

It must be admitted that some of the conclusions from a scientific article about the discovery of a braided cord in Neanderthals was not quite correctly perceived by the press. In particular, the authors of the article indicated that to make a cord, it was necessary to be able to count to three (there are three fibers in the cord), and also to distinguish between the sides - after all, the threads are twisted into one, clockwise, and woven into a cord - counterclockwise.

In fact, in a scientific article it is often necessary to postulate even quite obvious statements - not because these are discoveries, but because it is so accepted. It is very doubtful that there are scientists in the world who believed, before the new publication, that Neanderthals could not count to three, or did not distinguish between right and left.

Indeed, in the mass of experiments on animals it was established long ago that they count much further than up to three, and they distinguish the sides quite well. It is reliably known that even insects do this further than up to three, and bees are able to operate with such a complex concept as zero (and after all, humanity has been actively including zero in its calculations for less than three thousand years).

Strictly speaking, we cannot even say that the ability to make cords in these human predecessors, whose blood is present in all readers of this text (except blacks), really appeared only 40-50 thousand years ago. There is a Neanderthal artifact about 115 thousand years old from the Anton Cave (Murcia, southeastern Spain), which archaeologists confidently consider a necklace. Obviously, in order to wear it around the neck, some kind of lace was needed, but over the past time it has been completely lost. True, such a cord could be made of leather.


The authors also list numerous technological improvements that make the invention of spinning possible. In particular, they point out, after that it is much easier to make bags, ropes, boats and the like. Well, here is the same situation as with counting: the work repeats what can hardly be called a discovery. We know that Neanderthals cooked porridge from wild barley, and for such things, storage containers are needed. As far as we know, they did not have ceramics, so it is possible that they did have sacks.

The situation with the ropes is also quite transparent. They definitely should have been known to any kind of people capable of crossing the sea. The fact is that without ropes it is impossible to build a solid raft, and without a raft people would never be able to cross the sea straits. Meanwhile, on the islands of Flores and Luzon, people appeared more than half a million years ago - and they were not Neanderthals, but less developed Homo erectus.

This means that they could well have some kind of analogue of the rope. Neanderthal footprints on the Aegean sea islands also indicate that they have efficient floating craft. By the way, specifically for a boat, ropes are just not necessary - without them it is difficult to use only boats of high seaworthiness, with an analogue of an anchor and at least a primitive sail.

Finally, the conclusion of the authors of the article that the discovery of spinning in Neanderthals shows that they were mentally not inferior to our kind of people seems to be just as redundant. This is already obvious, at the current stage of the development of science, statement. In fact: in the Brunickel Cave, in France, there are remains of something like a ritual altar in a circle of stalagmitic fragments, and its antiquity is 170 thousand years.

Finally, Neanderthals painted, and it is their drawings that are the oldest known in the world. They also own an ancient example of the use of penicillin and salicylic acid. After that, can anyone seriously say that they were mentally inferior to our species, which obviously began to use penicillin much later than their predecessors?


As we have already written, the very fact that the Neanderthals were displaced by our ancestors does not necessarily indicate the "dead end" of the species assimilated by black immigrants from Africa. The aborigines of Eurasia were most likely destroyed due to superior military technologies - and this is a feature by which one should not judge the general development of a particular group of people.

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