ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Scientists have found something surprising on a prehistoric stone tool. It is a tiny piece of string. And as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, it's an intriguing clue about the lives of our closest extinct human relative, the Neanderthal.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: For a long time, scientists assumed that Neanderthals were primitive dolts.
BRUCE HARDY: They are this creature that is very similar to us, yet somehow is supposed to be too stupid to live.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bruce Hardy doesn't buy that vision of Neanderthals. He's a paleo-anthropologist at Kenyon College in Ohio. He points out that Neanderthals were smart enough to have persisted for hundreds of thousands of years. All that's left for archaeologists to find now, though, is basically just bones and stone tools.
HARDY: Most everything that we want to see is gone.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: However, sometimes, microscopic residues of materials can persist on the surface of stone tools. Hardy was recently using a microscope to examine the surface of one flint tool. It came from a cave-like rock shelter in southern France that was once inhabited by Neanderthals. And on this particular tool, he spotted something amazing.
HARDY: It was a mass of twisted fibers. It took us a while to kind of understand the technology that was going on. But it was clear that we had something as soon as I saw it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: What they had was string, a cord made by skillfully twisting together fibers from the inner bark of some kind of evergreen tree.
HARDY: They're three bundles of fibers that are twisted counterclockwise. And then those bundles, once they're twisted, are twisted back the other way, clockwise, around each other to form a cord or string.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The find is described in the journal Scientific Reports. This sophisticated string dates back to around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. It shows that Neanderthals may have mastered a key technology that's ubiquitous today. Cords and ropes let people do everything from making clothes to sailing the high seas. John Shea is a paleo-anthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York.
JOHN SHEA: We've long suspected that earlier humans and Neanderthals had some kind of cordage, some means by which to attach one thing to another. This is, as far as I know, some of the first definitive proof.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says it's possible that modern humans were wandering around that part of the world and made this string. But he thinks Neanderthals were plenty smart enough to figure out how to tie things together.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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