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Saturday, 19 January, 2002, 08:00 GMT
Neanderthals 'used glue to make tools'
Neanderthal, BBC
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

A sticky fingerprint on a fossilised blob of wood is firing the debate over how intelligent Neanderthals were.

The discovery suggests the ancient hunter-gatherers made tools by sticking stone heads to wooden handles with glue.

Neanderthals must have possessed a high degree of technical and manual abilities, comparable to those of modern Homo sapiens

Dr Dietrich Mania
According to archaeologists in Germany, Neanderthals burned birch over fires to make a tarry adhesive.

This was used to stick tools together, suggesting that Neanderthals were relatively sophisticated.

The fossilised wood tar, containing a fingerprint and the imprint of a flint stone tool was found near Königsaue in the northern foothills of the Harz Mountains.

In a new analysis, the specimen has been dated as being older than 80,000 years. Neanderthals are thought to have lived between about 300,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Scientists believe the wood tar (pitch) was prepared by slowly burning wood over a fire.

DIY skills

This requires technical competence and puts Neanderthals on an intellectual par with early modern humans, according to Dr Dietrich Mania of Friedrich-Schiller University, and colleagues.

The team writes in the European Journal of Archaeology: "The Neanderthals must have possessed a high degree of technical and manual abilities, comparable to those of modern Homo sapiens."

The species of human well adapted to life in Europe and the Middle East during the last two ice ages
Everyone's favourite 'caveman' and still the subject of much scientific debate
Journal editor, Dr Mark Pearce, of the University of Nottingham, UK, says it is an exciting revelation.

"It contributes directly to the debate on Neanderthals, who are generally depicted in the literature as rather less intelligent than their early modern human (Homo sapiens) competitors," he told BBC News Online.

Another question is how the Neanderthals learnt this behaviour.

"Was the pitch manufacture independently developed by the Neanderthals, or copied from their human competitors?" he said.

However, there are still some uncertainties over the dating of the samples. Given the lively debate over the rise and fall of the Neanderthals, some archaeologists are unlikely to be convinced.

See also:

02 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Meet the Neanderthals
21 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Fishy clue to rise of humans
06 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
Handy clues to ascent of Man
11 Oct 00 | Sci/Tech
DNA clues to Neanderthals
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