Anthropology

Ablaze in Pleistocene Italy

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Science  02 Mar 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6379, pp. 1005
DOI: 10.1126/science.359.6379.1005-a

Remains of charred boxwood sticks show how Neandertals made tools.

PHOTO: CARO/RUPERT OBERHAEUSER/NEWSCOM

As engravers know, boxwood is dense and hard. Neandertals knew this too. Nevertheless, wooden artifacts are vulnerable to decay, and such finds are rare and exciting. During excavations for a spa in central Italy, Aranguren et al. found remains of elephants, together with remnants of more than 50 burnt wooden sticks dating from around 170,000 years ago. Back then, this area consisted of patches of hotspring wetlands surrounded by grass and box shrub (Buxus sempervirens), through which elephant and deer roamed. The Neandertals apparently selected boxwood for its hardness and charred it to make shaping of the tough wood with flint tools a little easier. The tools appear to be multipurpose digging sticks with rounded handles and pointed tips. Tools of similar dimensions and technology were, until recently, also part of the essential equipment of modern hunter-gatherers.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 10.1073/pnas.1716068115 (2018).

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