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Neanderthals were distilling tar 200 thousand years ago in Europe – Ars Technica

Despite many recent discoveries that show Neanderthals were technologically and socially sophisticated, there’s still a popular idea that these heavy-browed, pale-skinned early humans were mentally inferior to modern Homo sapiens. Now we have even more corroboration that they were pretty sharp. A fascinating new study reveals that Neanderthals were distilling tar for tool-making 200 thousand years ago—long before evidence of tar-making among Homo sapiens. And an experimental anthropologist has some good hypotheses for how they did it, too.

One of humanity’s earliest technological breakthroughs was learning to distill tar from tree bark. It was key to making compound tools with two or more parts; adhesives could keep a stone blade nicely fitted into a wooden handle for use as a hoe, an axe, or even a spear. Scientists have discovered ancient beads of tar in Italy, Germany, and several other European sites dating back as much as 200 thousand years, which is about 150 thousand years before modern Homo sapiens arrived in Western Europe. That means the people who distilled that tar had to be Neanderthals.

The question that Leiden University archaeologist Paul Kozowyk and his colleagues wanted to answer was how sophisticated the Neanderthals had to be to do it. Modern-day tar is distilled between 340 °C and 370 °C, and the process requires a ceramic vessel. Maintaining a temperature in that narrow band is very difficult without specialized tools. Plus, we know for certain that nobody on Earth had developed ceramic technology until roughly 20 thousand years ago, and ceramic pots didn’t come into widespread use until about 9,000 years ago.

Neanderthals were distilling tar 200 thousand years ago in Europe – Ars Technica

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