Archaeologists Just Discovered That Neanderthals Made String 50,000 Years Ago, Suggesting They Were Waaay Smarter Than We Thought

The researchers say that Neanderthals "really weren't very different from us.”

Modern cordage made of grass fibers. Photo courtesy of Bruce Hardy.
Modern cordage made of grass fibers. Photo courtesy of Bruce Hardy.

Archaeologists have unearthed more evidence that Neanderthals were smarter than we previously believed.

According to newly found materials, our human brethren were making the world’s first string 50,000 years ago. The oldest-known cord fragments prior to this discovery were found in Israel, and were made some 19,000 years ago.

The find comes from an archaeological site called Abri du Maras in southeastern France, where Neanderthals lived between 90,000 and 42,000 years ago.

“The idea that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to modern humans is becoming increasingly untenable,” researchers say in an article documenting their finds published in Scientific Reports.

“We found many tools on the living floors left by Neanderthals among bones of reindeers,” archaeologist Marie-Hélène Moncel, one of the paper’s authors and the director of research at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, told the New York Times. “On one of these tools there was a micro-residue of vegetal fibers, twisted.”

The world's oldest-surviving string discovered at a Neanderthal archaeological site, as seen in a digital microscopy photo. Photo courtesy of the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France.

The world’s oldest-surviving string, seen in this digital microscopy photo, was found at an archaeological site in France. Photo courtesy of the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France.

Experts are positing that the string could have been used to produce utilitarian objects such as baskets, nets, mats, and bags, as well as fabrics.

Under a microscope, the six-millimeter white fragment found on the tool was revealed to be a three-ply cord made from the inner layer of tree bark, likely a conifer.

Excavations at the site had previously turned up other potential string fragments, but the possibility always remained that those were stray bits of modern fibers from archaeologists’ clothing. But “nobody at the site was wearing their conifer pants at the time” of the discovery, the paper’s lead author, palaeoanthropologist Bruce Hardy told the NewScientist.

The bundles of fibers were made into yarn using a counterclockwise “S-twist,” and then three strands of yarn were bound together in a clockwise “Z-twist,” creating a durable cord.

What makes the find even more remarkable is that the cord suggests that Neanderthals had a mathematical understanding of numbers.

The world's oldest-surviving string was discovered by archaeologists at a Neanderthal rock shelter at Abri du Maras in south-eastern France. Photo by Marie-Hélène Moncel.

The world’s oldest-surviving string was discovered by archaeologists at a Neanderthal rock shelter at Abri du Maras in south-eastern France. Photo by Marie-Hélène Moncel.

Making such a cord requires “context sensitive operational memory to keep track of each operation,” the paper says.

“As the structure becomes more complex (multiple cords twisted to form a rope, ropes interlaced to form knots),” it demonstrates that Neanderthals may have had “a cognitive complexity similar to that required by human language.”

“This is just another piece of the puzzle that shows [Neanderthals] really weren’t very different from us,” Hardy told NBC News.


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