Wooden tools made by Neanderthals in Tuscany, Italy, show signs of being deliberately charred to make them easier to work some 171,000 years ago. Although fire was used to change local environments and create heat long before, and there is some evidence of Neanderthals using fire to shape their tools even earlier, we have never seen such clear usage so early.
The control of fire was once considered one of the bright lines distinguishing humans from animals. The discovery that Neanderthals, considered by some to be part of our species, were apparently using it to shape wooden tools 171,000 years ago may not be quite as much of a blow to the human ego as learning that Australian raptors have learned to control the element, but still it is yet another reminder that we aren't as special as we like to think.
Wooden tools decay much more easily than stone ones, so we have a much poorer record of their use by early humans. Nevertheless, a rich trove of 58 items, intermingled with stone tools and bones of an extinct elephant species, came to light in the process of digging thermal pools at Poggetti Vecchi, Tuscany.
A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports; “The Poggetti Vecchi wooden tools differ morphologically and dimensionally from other ones known so far.” Many are poorly preserved so the team who found them remain unsure of their purpose, adding; “They are possibly multipurpose sticks, not necessarily weapons.” The resemblance to digging sticks, used by hunter-gatherers to extract roots, hunt small game, and grind grains, has been noted.
The largest tool was over a meter (3 feet) long, with most made of boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), the hardest local species. All were a good diameter to grip in the hand. The branches were clearly selected for straightness, and their lateral branches and bark had been carefully removed.
The most crucial feature is the charred layer, which the authors think made it easier to remove bark with abrasive stones. Although similar results could have been achieved without fire, the find indicates a familiarity and comfort with fire that suggests Neanderthals used it for other purposes too.
The bones accompanying the tools indicate the site comprised open grasslands at the time, inhabited by large herbivores like elephants and red deer. Pollen preserved at the site is diverse, suggesting a rich mixture of grasslands and wetlands. The world at the time was in the midst of the penultimate ice age, and global temperatures were dipping from a minor recovery, so the average temperatures would have been much cooler than today. Even for the cold-adapted Neanderthals, fire and the local warm springs would have been greatly appreciated.