Archaeology: Climate change caused Neanderthals to innovate – ‘Advanced planning proof’

Archaeologists now know our ancient ancestors developed more complex tools in response to climate change. Researchers from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) and Università degli Studi die Ferrara (UNIFE) based their conclusion on finds from Lower Bavaria’s Sesselfelsgrotte cave.

Neanderthals lived approximately 400,000 to 40,000 years ago in Europe and the Middle East.

Keilmesser are a reaction to the highly mobile lifestyle during the first half of the last ice age

Professor Dr Thorsten Uthmeier

They produced tools using wood and glass-like rock material, which they also sometimes combined, such as making spears with a sharp and hard point made of stone.

From approximately 100,000 years ago, their universal cutting and scraping tool was a knife made of stone, the handle consisting of a blunt edge on the tool itself.

These asymmetrical bi-facially shaped knives, called Keilmessers were available in various shapes, leading researchers to question why the Neanderthals created such a variety of knives.

Professor Dr Thorsten Uthmeier, of the Institute of Prehistory and Early History at FAU, said: ”Keilmesser are a reaction to the highly mobile lifestyle during the first half of the last ice age.

“As they could be sharpened again as and when necessary, they were able to be used for a long time—almost like a Swiss army knife today.

“However, people often forget that bi-facially worked knives were not the only tools Neanderthals had.”

Dr Davide Delpiano from Sezione di Scienze Preistoriche e Antropologiche at UNIFE, added: “Backed knives from the Neanderthal period are surprisingly varied.

“Our research uses the possibilities offered by digital analysis of 3D models to discover similarities and differences between the various types of knives using statistical methods.”

The two researchers investigated artefacts from the Sesselfelsgrotte cave, considered to be one of Central Europe’s most important Neanderthal sites.

Excavations in the cave resulted in the discovery of more than 100,000 artefacts and innumerable hunting remains.

The researchers have now analysed the most significant knife-like tools using 3D scan.

These allowed the properties of the tool to be recorded with extreme precision.

Dr Uthmeier said: ”The technical repertoire used to create Keilmesser is not only direct proof of the advanced planning skills of our extinct relatives, but also a strategical reaction to the restrictions imposed upon them by adverse natural conditions.”

Such ‘adverse natural conditions’ are climate changes after the end of the last interglacial more than 100,000 years ago.

Particularly severe cold phases during the following Weichsel glacial period began more than 60,000 years ago led to a shortage of natural resources.

In order to survive, the Neanderthals had to become more mobile than before, and adjust their tools accordingly.

The Neanderthals probably copied the functionality of unifacial backed knives, which are only shaped on one side, and used these as the starting point to develop bi-facially formed Keilmesser shaped on both sides.

Davide Delpiano from UNIF said: ”This is indicated in particular by similarities in the cutting edge, which consists in both instances of a flat bottom and a convex top, which was predominantly suited for cutting lengthwise, meaning that it is quite right to refer to the tool as a knife,”

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