Despite many recent discoveries that show Neanderthals were technologically and socially sophisticated, there’s still a popular idea that these heavy-browed, pale-skinned early humans were mentally inferior to modern Homo sapiens. Now we have even more corroboration that they were pretty sharp. A fascinating new study reveals that Neanderthals were distilling tar for tool-making 200 thousand years ago—long before evidence of tar-making among Homo sapiens. And an experimental anthropologist has some good hypotheses for how they did it, too.
One of humanity’s earliest technological breakthroughs was learning to distill tar from tree bark. It was key to making compound tools with two or more parts; adhesives could keep a stone blade nicely fitted into a wooden handle for use as a hoe, an axe, or even a spear. Scientists have discovered ancient beads of tar in Italy, Germany, and several other European sites dating back as much as 200 thousand years, which is about 150 thousand years before modern Homo sapiens arrived in Western Europe. That means the people who distilled that tar had to be Neanderthals.