Used to smooth tough animal hides, the tools were made by Neanderthals - not just the humans who came after them, as researchers had earlier theorized. (Agencies)
Naomi Martisius from the University of California, Davis, stumbled across a peculiar piece of tiny bone remnants in 2011.
The bone fragment, from a French archaeological site, turned out to be a part of an early specialized bone tool used by a Neanderthal about 50,000 years ago before the first modern humans appeared in Europe.
"At the time, I had no idea about the impact of my discovery," said Martisius, who is pursuing her doctoral degree in anthropology at UC Davis.
Martisius' opportunity was the result of a decade of excavation and research by two international teams.
"Previously these types of bone tools have only been associated with modern humans," said Teresa E Steele, associate professor of anthropology at UC Davis."However, our identification of these pieces in secure Neanderthal contexts leaves open the possibility that we have found, for the first time, evidence that Neanderthals may have influenced the technology of modern humans," she said.
The specialized tools are still used today, in similar form, to smooth and refine leather made into high-end purses and jackets.
The bone tools were found in deposits containing typical Neanderthal stone tools and the bones of hunted animals including reindeer, red deer and bison. Three of the four pieces were from the site of Abri Peyrony, France.
Using sophisticated imaging techniques, Martisius will examine the pieces made by the Neanderthals, comparing those with the ones first made by the first modern humans in Europe and the ones she manufactures at UC Davis.
She plans to look at animal bones from nearby sites to see if she can identify additional pieces made by Neanderthals.
The tools described in their current work were recovered in archaeological sites in the French countryside that had been explored for more than 100 years, but modern archaeological techniques enabled researchers to recognize these smaller pieces now identified as pieces of once-sophisticated tools, Steele said.
Used to smooth tough animal hides, the tools were made by Neanderthals - not just the humans who came after them, as researchers had earlier theorized.