Early String Ties Us to Neanderthals

A 50,000-year-old fragment of cord hints at the cognitive abilities of our ancient hominid cousins.

The New York Times, April 9, 2020
B. Hardy

Building a curriculum vitae is a time-consuming process — just ask Homo neanderthalensis.

First unearthed in the Neander Valley in Germany, Neanderthals were long known for one quality: their extinction, about 40,000 years ago. In the late 19th century, the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel didn’t do the species any favors when he recommended the name Homo stupidus.

In recent decades, however, the Neanderthals’ skill set has expanded. They now are known to have made a glue-like birch bark tar (no trivial task), cave art and shell beads. They hunted large mammals like stags and bulls as well as fish, ducks, raptors and rabbits. And they made stone tools and projectiles.

A new study, published today in Scientific Reports, adds another talent: fiber technology — and perhaps, by extension, numeracy, because strands of string are combined in pairs and sets to form cord.

“They were not supposed to be doing much of anything, really, if you go with the stereotype,” said Bruce Hardy, a paleoanthropologist at Kenyon College in Ohio, and the paper’s lead author.

The evidence is a thin three-ply cord fragment, approximately one-quarter of an inch long, found stuck to stone tool, or flake — about 50,000 years old — and excavated from an archaeological site called Abri du Maras in southeastern France. Neanderthals occupied the site (they came to hunt reindeer) in several phases between 90,000 and 42,000 years ago.

“The site is really rich with a high degree of preservation, with fire places, tools, bones,” said Marie-Hélène Moncel, an archaeologist and director of research at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and an author of the study.

“We found many tools on the living floors left by Neanderthals among bones of reindeers,” Dr. Moncel said. “On one of these tools there was a micro-residue of vegetal fibers, twisted.”

The twisting is key to fiber technology, making string and cord more complex than one might expect.

“We take them for granted, despite the fact that we’re surrounded by them on a daily basis,” Dr. Hardy said of these items. Speaking by phone from his office at Kenyon, he noted several examples in view, including his clothing, the carpet, and, looking out the window at a construction site, a crane with cables of twisted wire rope.

“Fiber technology is a foundational technology for humans,” he said. “Essentially, we wouldn’t really be here today, where we are in the world, without twisted fibers.”

The team has been excavating at Abri du Maras for a decade. Several years ago they started encountering single twisted fibers, which normally might be dismissed as a contaminant from an excavator’s clothing, but these fibers were not dyed, and they looked very old. In a 2013 paper — “Impossible Neanderthals?” — the researchers hypothesized that the fibers might be string produced by the site’s ancient inhabitants.

To make their case, they adopted a more rigorous process of documenting potential contaminants, and during excavation continued to immediately seal any artifacts into zip-style plastic bags until they were analyzed, first under the microscope by Dr. Hardy.

When he saw the cordage fragment from the flake excavated by Dr. Moncel, he thought to himself, “‘Oh, we’ve got it. This is real string. This is a real piece of string.’”

After the initial excitement came the job of convincing the skeptics, in a lengthy back-and-forth review process that delayed publication.

For one, the team was reporting a piece of material that was about 50,000 years old. The immediate assumption was that such a fragment could never have survived. Indeed, most material culture, from Neanderthals and humans both, is organic and perishable, and rarely makes it into the archaeological record. This predicament has been described by Linda Hurcombe, of the University of Exeter in England, as “the missing majority.”

By Dr. Hurcombe’s assessment, the team successfully made the case that the cord fragment was truly of Neanderthal origin; the fibers were not a result of modern contamination.

“This is careful, cautious work, in the excavation strategy and the analysis,” Dr. Hurcombe said. “We can make a well-reasoned guess that perishable material culture was important, but it is this kind of careful work that will push back the dates for the earliest firm evidence.” She added, “Cordage technologies are the basis for many items of material culture and this find gives us a window on the ‘missing majority’.”

Other scholars during the review process expressed an old-fashioned skepticism that Neanderthals would engage in behavior as sophisticated as the step-by-step process of making cord.

The excavated fragment of cord was likely derived from the inner bark of a conifer or evergreen tree, such as a pine or juniper. It was composed of fibers plied together: numerous fibers twisted counterclockwise, in an “S-twist,” to make yarn; and then three strands of yarn twisted in the opposite direction, clockwise with a “Z-twist,” to make cord. The twisting and retwisting produce a tensile strength.

Although the researchers were careful in speculating about the uses of this fragment, they proposed that lengths of cord could have been combined into larger structures such as bags, mats, nets, fabric, baskets, snares and even boats.

Moreover, they suggested, “the production of cordage necessitates an understanding of mathematical concepts and general numeracy.”

“Cordage production entails context sensitive operational memory to keep track of each operation,” they wrote. “As the structure becomes more complex (multiple cords twisted to form a rope, ropes interlaced to form knots), it demonstrates an ‘infinite use of finite means’ and requires a cognitive complexity similar to that required by human language.”

Dr. Hardy noted the cognitive parallels. “I can’t have a sentence without words, and I can’t have words without the individual sounds that carry meaning,” he said. “So I can’t have a rope or a cord or a bag or a net without the other steps along the way. You can’t start with the end product.” It’s a scaffolding process that scales up.

Some scholars expressed concern that the study was reading too much into, well, a piece of string.

“Whilst not wanting to belittle the Neanderthal achievement, which does seem much closer to that of Pleistocene Homo sapiens that until recently we gave them credit for, this does not make them cognitive geniuses,” said Paul Pettitt, a Paleolithic archaeologist at Durham University in England.

He viewed the finding as “a welcome addition to our understanding of the behavioral repertoire of the Neanderthals.” But the interpretation, he said, “fuels the somewhat simplistic debate that polarizes the issue between Neanderthals as being either stupid, or geniuses.”

Dr. Hardy said, “I’m not saying they are geniuses. I am saying they are not morons.”

In short, they were not that different from the average Homo sapiens. “Cognitively, they are us,” Dr. Hardy said. “They’re not us exactly, but they are close enough.”