Did Neanderthal make baskets?

Glenn Morton (grmorton@waymark.net)
Fri, 07 Nov 1997 21:18:59 -0600

I just ran across a fascinating study of stone tools from Southwest France.
The tool of most interest came from Combe Grenal and is dated to Wurm I time
(>73,000 years ago-Lawrence Guy Straus, "Southwestern Europe at the Last
Glacial Maximum", Current Anthropology, 32:2, (April 1991), pp 189-199, p. 190)

This time was prior to the occurrence of anatomically modern man in Europe.

The tool had a fragment of either a rush or a sedge in a groove.
Anderson-Gerfaud writes:

"However, we were able to identify at least one plant-
harvesting tool from the Middle Palaeolithic--a convex scraper on
a blade from a Wurm I level (Typical Mousterian) at Combe-Grenal,
described earlier. This particular tool was significant in that
it was clearly used with a curved, 'harvesting' motion, and edge
damage on the edge opposite the one used suggests that it may
have been used in a haft. We then examined the tool with the
scanning electron microscope to search for any minute fragments
of residue material which might clarify its use. A residue
located near the working edge, in a slight depression in the tool
surface was found by comparison with microscopic cellular
fragments (e.g. siliceous phytoliths) we extracted and studied
from living plants) to be from a grass, or possibly a sedge
(Cyperaceae) or a rush (Junicus).
"It is not clear whether this tool was used to procure
edible seeds, although certainly seeds of grass and probably
sedge are edible foodstuffs. It is more likely that this tool,
like other Palaeolithic tools of its nature, was used to gather
or process plant materials for various artisanal or maintenance
purposes (e.g. construction, basketry, fuel, etc.). Indeed,
obtaining the plant stems seems to be the primary goal of
harvesting plants with a stone tool, at least until cereals with
domestic characteristics of ripening evenly and holding their
grain at maturity are documented. This is probably because ripe
seeds of wild grasses (and cerials, if we consider the Near
Eastern Epi-Palaeolithic period) are efficiently gathered by
hand-picking, or by stripping or rubbing of the plant over a
basket, for example."~Patricia Anderson-Gerfaud, "Aspects of
Behaviour in the Middle Palaeolithic: Functional Analysis of
Stone Tools from Southwest France," in Paul Mellars, The
Emergence of Modern Humans, (Ithica: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990),
pp. 389-418, p. 400

Now, those who would reject Neanderthal as human must face the fact that a
non-human was possibly making baskets, not to mention the things I have
discussed over the past two years---the flutes, tents, spears and engaging
in burials with flowers. I must say that this is quite unusual behavior for
an animal; wish we had one for a modern circus.


Foundation, Fall and Flood