New Study Reveals How the Neanderthals Made Super Glue 200,000 Years Ago: The World’s Oldest Synthetic Material

It’s become increas­ing­ly clear how much we’ve under­es­ti­mat­ed the Nean­derthals, the archa­ic humans who evolved in Europe and went extinct about 40,000 years ago. Though we’ve long used them as a byword for a lum­ber­ing, beast-like lack of devel­op­ment and intel­li­gence — com­pared, of course, to we glo­ri­ous exam­ples of Homo sapi­ens — evi­dence has come to reveal a greater sim­i­lar­i­ty between us and Homo nean­derthalen­sis than we’d imag­ined. Not only did they devel­op stone tools, they even invent­ed a kind of “super glue,” one that, as you can see in the NOVA seg­ment above, we have dif­fi­cul­ty repli­cat­ing even today.

“Archae­ol­o­gists first found tar-cov­ered stones and black lumps at Nean­derthal sites across Europe about two decades ago,” writes the New York Times’ Nicholas St. Fleur. “The tar was dis­tilled from the bark of birch trees some 200,000 years ago, and seemed to have been used for haft­ing, or attach­ing han­dles to stone tools and weapons. But sci­en­tists did not know how Nean­derthals pro­duced the dark, sticky sub­stance, more than 100,000 years before Homo sapi­ens in Africa used tree resin and ocher adhe­sives.” But in a new study in Sci­en­tif­ic Reports, “a team of archae­ol­o­gists has used mate­ri­als avail­able dur­ing pre­his­toric times to demon­strate three pos­si­ble ways Nean­derthals could have delib­er­ate­ly made tar.”

The process might have looked some­thing like that in the video above, an attempt by archae­ol­o­gists Wil Roe­broeks and Friedrich Palmer to make this of old­est known syn­thet­ic mate­r­i­al just as the Nean­derthals might have exe­cut­ed it. Their only mate­ri­als: “an upturned ani­mal skull to catch the pitch; a small stone on which the pitch would con­dense; some rolls of birch bark, the source of the pitch; and a lay­er of ash, to exclude oxy­gen and pre­vent the bark from burn­ing.”

Image by Paul Kozowyk

They tech­ni­cal­ly get it to work, man­ag­ing to heat the bark to just the right tem­per­a­ture, but the exper­i­ment does­n’t pro­duce very much of this ancient super glue — cer­tain­ly not as much as Nean­derthals would have used to make spears, which might turn out to have been the very first indus­tri­al process in his­to­ry. Inno­va­tion, in the 21st cen­tu­ry as well as 250,000 years ago, does tend to come from unex­pect­ed places.

You can read more about arche­ol­o­gists lat­est the­o­ries on the mak­ing of Nean­derthal super glue over at Sci­en­tif­ic Reports.

via Giz­mo­do

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Did the Voice of Nean­derthals, Our Dis­tant Cousins, Sound Like?: Sci­en­tists Demon­strate Their “High Pitch” The­o­ry

Hear the World’s Old­est Instru­ment, the “Nean­derthal Flute,” Dat­ing Back Over 43,000 Years

Richard Dawkins Explains Why There Was Nev­er a First Human Being

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Zorg Flintrock says:

    The Nean­derthals also had a hand in the devel­op­ment of Pritt brand glue sticks, par­tic­u­lar­ly the mul­ti­packs com­mon­ly found in back-to-school bun­dles — one of the first exam­ples of 3 for 2 pric­ing!

    Oh, no — my mis­take — it was just tar.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.