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Neanderthals May Have Passed Bone Tool Design to Early Humans

Aug 12, 2013 05:29 PM EDT

A simple tool commonly used to work leather is remarkably similar to bone tools found in ancient Neanderthal sites more than 50,000 years old, and researchers are suggesting that the tool's design was passed from Neanderthal communities to humans before the former died out.

Shannon McPherron, co-author of the study and an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said the bone tools, which were found in two sites excavated in southwest France, are unlike any other bone tools found at Neanderthal sites, but very similar to a tool known to have been in human use for tens of thousands of years.

"It opens the possibility that in this case, maybe they learned this tool type from Neanderthals," McPherron said when he spoke to CNN, referring to humans in Europe.

Called a lissoir or smoother, the tool is fashioned out of ribs from a deer and, when used against hide, creates softer, burnished and more water resistant leather.

The lissoir were found in two location in France each approximately 50,000 years old. Modern humans are thought to have arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago.

"If Neanderthals developed this type of bone tool on their own, it is possible that modern humans then acquired this technology from Neanderthals. Modern humans seem to have entered Europe with pointed bone tools only, and soon after started to make lissoirs. This is the first possible evidence for transmission from Neanderthals to our direct ancestors," Marie Soressi, of Leiden University in The Netherlands, said in a statement

While evidence of Neanderthals transmitting a piece of technology to humans would a major discovery, there are other possible scenarios the archaeologists are considering, including that their understanding of when humans arrived in Europe could be wrong or that the two groups conceived the same piece of technology independently.

The archaeologists will have to keep digging for evidence to become more certain.

McPherron and his colleagues' research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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