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New insights into Neandertal knowledge from the mass-spectrometry analysis of plastic containers

The analysis of protein residues extracted from the storage containers of circa 50,000 year old bone-tools reveals Neandertal strategic selection of bovid ribs to make some of their “lissoirs”.

“Lissoir” analysed in the study.

From bone to tool

The transformation of a bone into a tool changes the original morphology of the material so much that it is usually impossible to identify what animal was used to manufacture a prehistoric bone tool. In turn the choices made during the manufacture of the many prehistoric bone-tools remain mysterious. In addition, prehistoric bone tools often being small, non-destructive analysis are a must as they allow the display of the object to the public while fostering future analysis. 

Strategic selection

Researchers from the University of California and several other institutions including Professor Marie Soressi from Leiden Faculty of Archaeology just published the extraction of degraded bone collagen peptides from several plastic storage containers protecting Neandertal bone tools. The team demonstrated the authenticity of the protein extracts and using mass-spectrometry showed that auroch or bison bones were used to manufacture the non-destructively sampled Neandertal bone-tools called “lissoirs”. “Lissoirs” were used by Neandertals 50,000 years ago likely to work hide and a modern version of it is still in use today to manufacture leather goods. 

Because the same Neandertals were mostly hunting mammals other than auroch and bisons, the researchers conclude that these Neandertals were strategically selecting bovids animal bones for manufacturing their “lissoirs”. 

Dream situation

'Such a technique gives information on objects that was completely inaccessible until recently… and to do it in a non-destructive manner - a dream situation for museum curators and scientists!' says Prof. Soressi, and she adds 'and of course it is great to know a little bit more about Neandertals strategies.' 

There are still a lot of unknowns about Neandertal “lissoirs” and about many other prehistoric bone-tools, and Prof. Soressi hopes that Leiden students and alumni will continue to contribute in the future to unravel that story. 

Read the article on the website of Nature.

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