February 1, 2023

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The World’s Oldest String Belonged To an Enterprising Neanderthal

  • A paper published in Scientific Reports studied plant fibers, refashioned into string, that were discovered as part of an ancient flint tool.
  • This new evidence suggests human ancestors were more intelligent than previously thought.
  • The string is between 41,000 and 52,000 years old, making it the oldest string in the world.

    A cave in southern France has been home to a small treasure for thousands of years—a tool used by Neanderthals. This simple tool—whose function remains unknown but could have been part of any number of items such as a basket or snare—provides evidence that our ancestors understood the math behind pairs, sets, and numbers.

    The Abri du Maras excavation site—where the tool was found—has previously revealed other fibers that “led to the hypothesis of Neanderthal string production in the past, but conclusive evidence was lacking,” according to the paper.

    Bruce Hardy, a paleoanthropologist and one of the paper authors, was studying the stone tool when he noticed there were little bits of white embedded within the stone’s surface.

    “It was a mass of twisted fibers,” Hardy told NPR. Adding that as soon as he saw the fibers, “it was clear that we had something.” Archeologists dug up the tool approximately 10 feet under the surface, which was then analyzed using light microscopy.


    A portion of stone with the embedded fragment (shown in the box).

    M.-H. Moncel

    The light microscope revealed that Hardy found a three-ply cord fragment derived from the interior bark of an unidentified evergreen. Marie-Hélène Moncel, another paper author and research team member, told NPR that the fragment was intentionally placed on the stone to create a working tool. Moncel is certain that due to the location where the find was made in conjunction with previous discoveries at the Abri du Maras site, the tool was created by a Neanderthal.

    Still, some in the scientific community believe that the possibility exists that early Homo sapiens may have forged the tool using the tree fibers to create the string. Paleoanthropologist John Shea told NPR that just because Neanderthal remains have been found in the area, that doesn’t preclude the presence of early man inhabiting the same space at the same time as well.

    “You have to keep an open mind,” he said.

    Source: NPR