Neanderthals Were Mixing Tar 200,000 Years Ago
These prehistoric people used tar to produce tools way before modern humans came to Europe
There is still a widespread, persistent belief that Neanderthals were less capable, and less intelligent than modern Homo sapiens despite a plethora of recent finds that demonstrate their technological, cultural and social sophistication.
We now have even more proof that they were intelligent.
Learning to extract tar from tree bark was one of humanity's earliest technological achievements. Adhesives fixed stone blades neatly onto wooden handles for use as a hoe, an axe, or even a spear; and this was crucial when manufacturing compound tools with two or more pieces. Around 150,000 years before the arrival of modern Homo sapiens in Western Europe, researchers have found ancient beads of tar dating back as far as 200,000 years in Italy, Germany, and other European locations. Long before there was evidence of Homo sapiens manufacturing tar, a fascinating new study1 indicates that Neanderthals were distilling tar for tool-making.
Just how did they do this?
Well, these experimental anthropologists has some solid theories regarding how they accomplished this. See, today's tar is distilled at temperatures between 340 and 370 °C and is done so in a ceramic vessel. Without specialist equipment, maintaining a temperature in that specific range is quite challenging. Additionally, ceramic technology did not appear on Earth until about 20,000 years ago, and ceramic pots did not become widely used until about 9,000 years ago.
The authors of the research made the decision to conduct some experimental archaeology in order to learn how these Neanderthals distilled tar. They set out to produce tar using just the resources available to Neanderthals. Fire, ash, birch bark, pointy stones, and stick-woven mesh were some of them. The group experimented with three different processes for extracting tar from birch bark while monitoring tar output, temperature, and task difficulty.
Under a mound of ash and embers, a roll of birch bark is heated in the "ash mound" method. Tar is extruded into a bowl made of wood.
The "pit roll" technique involves lighting a fire on top of a tube of birch bark that has been put into a small pit. At the bottom of the pit, tar seeps from the roll onto a rock.
Last but not least, the "raised structure" technique involves setting a birch bowl in a small hole and covering it with a green willow screen. The screen is covered with a roll of birch, which is then buried in earth. The birch bark is slowly cooked by a fire that is placed on top of the ground.
A few grams of tar were produced by each technique, which is comparable to the quantities found at Neanderthal sites in Europe. However, certain techniques—like the raised structure—were more resource- and firewood-intensive. And, other techniques, like the pit roll, were straightforward and efficient but produced little tar. Additionally, the researchers found that they could distill tar even when the temperature fluctuated between 200 °C and 400 °C. So, it turns out that making tar does not require ceramics or a well controlled temperature.
The researchers came to the conclusion that Neanderthals may have used any of these techniques. They also mentioned the fact that utilizing cooking pits made them all simple to perform. In fact, it's possible that Neanderthals discovered how to create tar accidentally when a stray piece of birch bark started to seep tar next to the fire. The ancient people would then have found it rather easy to discover that tar was sticky and ultimately to conclude that it might be used to better secure their instruments.
It's doubtful that the discovery of tar distillation by Neanderthals would have been a sudden insight. Instead, they would have made a number of insignificant steps and possibly unintentional discoveries.
It's likely that different cultures around the world developed distinct methods and times for distilling tar. Still, making tar requires complex thought, as well as the ability to combine tools and plan for the future. For this reason, the team see similarities between the technological capabilities of Neanderthals and their near-modern contemporaries in Africa. However, no one is certain why Homo sapiens did not distill tar in Africa. Most likely, there were no birch trees nearby.
There is ample evidence that early humans produced ochre for use as an adhesive in Africa and Australia. Consider for a minute the fact that you have just used one of humanity's earliest technological creations the next time you use a drop of glue. Additionally, a Neanderthal created it.
Kozowyk, P.R.B., Soressi, M., Pomstra, D. et al. Experimental methods for the Palaeolithic dry distillation of birch bark: implications for the origin and development of Neandertal adhesive technology. Sci Rep 7, 8033 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-08106-7