Neanderthals Could Make String: Oldest Rope Known Found in France

Could Neanderthals make rafts? Three-ply cord fragment found in the Abri du Maras cave is 41,000 to 52,000 years old and indicates complexity in thinking and manufacture

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Scanning electron microscope photo of Neanderthal cord from Abri du Maras
Scanning electron microscope photo of Neanderthal cord from Abri du MarasCredit: M-H. Moncel
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Were Neanderthals wearing not bloodstained pelts but fabrics? Sometime between 41,000 to 52,000 years ago, Neanderthals in a cave in today’s France wove a three-ply cord, a team of scientists reported in Nature Research on Thursday.

The cord is the prerequisite for a host of potential developments including weaving. The news is nothing short of momentous.

For one thing, this postulated string is tens of thousands of years older than the previous record holder, string found in the prehistoric site of Ohalo in northern Israel, which was 19,000 years old and definitely made by a member of Homo sapiens, the authors explain.

To begin with, other hominins – post-ape species – were extinct by that time. The 6.2-millimeter-long fragment of string discovered in the Abri du Maras cave is confidently stated to have been made by Neanderthals, the only hominin known to have inhabited France at the time in question.

For another thing, prehistoric perishables, certainly those before the Holocene epoch that began 12,000 years ago, are incredibly scarce. They rot.

Yet the odd one survives the ages because of unique conditions enabling preservation. In Europe, nine wooden spears and a lance were found amid butchered horses at Schöningen, Germany, dating to 340,000 to 300,000 years ago. These weapons were either used by Neanderthals or some other hominin. A spear found in Clacton, England has been dated to 400,000 years ago. What species fashioned it is not known.

Fire-hardened wooden tools unearthed at Poggetti Vecchi, Italy, dated to around 170,000 years ago, have been associated with early Neanderthals.

Now we have a tiny bit of string dating somewhere between 41,000 to 52,000 years ago, found adhering to a stone tool. It’s the latest evidence that Neanderthals were capable of material composition at a level some assumed was the fief of Homo sapiens.

The noble Neanderthal

The consensus on the Neanderthals has profoundly changed since the early days of assuming they were brutish ape people, but the extent of their capabilities and what these discoveries might portend remains disputed. The thinking ranges from the noble Neanderthal not fundamentally different from us to the not-brute-but-not-there-yet variety.

It has been pointed out on the downside that there are numerous stunning examples of art by early modern humans, starting over 50,000 years ago (in Indonesia). And leaving aside a controversial hashtag engraving found in Gibraltar, there is exactly one example of art described as Neanderthal, in today’s Spain, dating to 65,000 years ago – based on the argument that there wasn’t anybody else around.

Here there is no real doubt that the makers were Neanderthals. “There are fragmentary Neanderthal remains at the site,” Bruce Hardy of Kenyon College, one researcher writing in the Nature Research article, told Haaretz. “Also, all of the material culture [stone tools] is characteristic of Neanderthals.”

Excavation work at the Abri du Maras cave in France, where Neanderthals made string.Credit: Marie-Hélène Moncel

Also arguing for cultural development, shell beads and mineral paint have been found in Neanderthal settings in Spain dating to over 115,000 years ago, predating the earliest known comparable evidence associated with modern humans by at least 20,000 years.

In addition, researchers have postulated that from at least 130,000 years ago, Neanderthals were whacking off eagles’ talons and wearing them as pendants. Yet another team suggests that hominins were collecting feathers of grand birds 400,000 years ago in today’s Israel, maybe for use in a prehistoric ritual.

Markings on bones in a cave in Lingjing, China date to 110,000 years ago; they were done by a hominin and are postulated to have been artistic.

If these interpretation of the finds are correct, the roots of symbolic material culture may have arisen in the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans, perhaps some 700,000 years ago.

There’s no evidence that the common ancestor could weave; it would be miraculous to find any remains after all these years. But maybe the Neanderthals could, if they could make this multi-twisted string.

In fact, anthropologists and archaeologists had already suspected that the Abri du Maras Neanderthals were cording. Isolated twisted fibers had been found on other stone tools, but this wasn’t sufficient to reach any conclusions. But now researchers have found the smoking string.

A close-up of modern flax cordage showing twisted-fiber construction.Credit: S. Deryck

How complex was this cord fragment, all of 6.2 millimeters long and 0.5 millimeters wide? “Examination of photomicrographs revealed 3 bundles of fibers with S-twist which were then plied together with a Z-twist to form a 3-ply cord,” writes the team, adding that it was similar to modern cord. The team is made up of Bruce Hardy of Kenyon College, Ohio; Marie-Hélène Moncel and Matthieu Lebon of the Museum of Natural History in Paris; Celine Kerfant of the Catalan paleoecological institute, Tarragona, Spain; and Nicolas Mélard of the Sorbonne.

Making these multiply-twisted fibers implies the use of complex multicomponent technology as well as a mathematical understanding of pairs, sets and numbers, the team says.

As Hardy told Haaretz, “Twisted-fiber technology is incredibly versatile and complex. Even within a simple cord, there are multiple structures with different twists. Twisted cords can be combined in different ways and in different numbers to produce complex ropes, even if the result is still a linear cord. This involves using pairs and sets of numbers to create shapes and structures.”

“In this case, the initial step is multiple plant fibers twisted anticlockwise [an S-twist] to make yarn. Then a set of three yarns are twisted clockwise [a Z-twist] to create the cord. The construction of a three-ply cord implies more than an understanding of pairs and suggests an understanding that a three-ply cord has greater strength and durability.”

In this case, multicomponent means that these Neanderthals may have been tying stone axes to handles, giving them extra heft, using string. Separate research in recent years has shown that Neanderthals also mastered the art of hafting their stone tools – affixing them to handles – using a tar glue they made from birch bark resin.

That definitely shows command of multicomponent technology. It has also been demonstrated that given the materials around Neanderthals, birch bark was the optimal raw material, hinting at possible experimentation.

Hafting was a momentous advance for ancient hominins, enabling them to leverage the impact of their stone tools. Imagine braining a bison with a stone blade in your hand, versus hitting it with a stone blade at the end of a long stick.

Neanderthals at sea?

The ability to make string opens up a whole new vista of potential industry by Neanderthals. They could potentially have woven clothing; they could have knotted nets, plaited rope, tied together tree bits to make rafts, and so much more “which, once discovered, would have become an indispensable part of daily life,” the authors posit.

No evidence of such industry has been found, and probably if Neanderthals made such things, they would have long have rotted away, leaving behind no trace. “At this point, we only have evidence of the cord,” Hardy says.

“The cord, however, forms the basis of these other technologies. A cord demonstrates the understanding of making the first part of the technology – twisted fibers to form a yarn, then twisting yarns to form a cord. This is the application of an infinite use of finite things. The other technologies are just steps further up the chain, but the basics are there.”

As for boats, it has been discovered that coastal Neanderthals joyfully devoured shellfish, seals and other sea life, and could swim and dive for clams. Maybe they also rafted on logs tied together.

The Abri du Maras cave is in a valley near the Ardèche River and was occupied by Neanderthals from about 90,000 years ago to about 40,000 years ago. The earliest inhabitants lived deep inside as cave dwellers do, but at some point the cave roof collapsed and the local Neanderthals then had to use the site as a rock shelter.

It’s these latter inhabitants who made the cord. The tiny fragment was detected (by microscopy) adhering to a Levallois-type stone flake. That doesn’t prove it was attached to the flake let alone tied to a handle. But the sediment evidence indicates that the two were buried together and the proximity suggests that hafting had been done. Or the cord could have been from a string bag holding the stone tool, the researchers add.

In a twist of their own, the authors show that the fibers for the string originated in the inner bark of pine trees. Similar to the case of making tar glue from birch bark, Neanderthals were optimizing their process, and in this case, demonstrated keen knowledge of trees, the authors argue.

They add that the majority of the animal remains at the site were reindeer, venerated ungulates to some and a tasty treat to others.

One last point. This string was made between 41,000 to 52,000 years ago, but the authors point out that postulated pendants have been found that are tens of thousands of years older. So perhaps cording goes back at least 115,000 years, to the earliest shell found with a bored hole in it. Of course the beings who made that shell could have hung it using leather or sinew.

Moving on, imprints on clay from 28,000 years ago found in Moravia in the Czech Republic show that by then, weaving and textiles were a thing and were complex enough to indicate that they weren’t the earliest. But those weren’t made by Neanderthals, who were extinct by then. They were made by Homo sapiens.

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