At this point in a typical semester, students in Professor of Anthropology Bruce Hardy’s “Neanderthals” course might be outside learning how to make stone tools and build shelters — “trying to really get into the mindset of what it would have been like to be a Neanderthal,” as Hardy puts it. But even before the interruption that the COVID-19 pandemic introduced to his syllabus, Hardy had a twist in store for this semester. He would discuss with his students a groundbreaking new study about Neanderthals — his own publication, detailing his discovery of an ancient string fragment that is believed to be the oldest known direct evidence of fiber technology.
Hardy’s research with colleagues in France and Spain, published earlier this month in Scientific Reports, adds to the growing body of knowledge about the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals. Their study centers around a six-millimeter-long cord fragment Hardy spotted while analyzing residue on a stone tool excavated by his co-authors from Abri du Maras, a site in southeastern France. Hardy and his co-authors date the cord fragment they excavated to between 41,000–52,000 years ago; prior to their discovery, the oldest discovered bundles of twisted fiber fragments dated to around 19,000 years ago.
The cord fragment consisted of three bundles of twisted fibers likely cultivated from the inner bark of a non-flowering tree. According to Hardy, the way the fibers were twisted together suggests Neanderthals may have possessed a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts and numeracy than previously believed, and that they may have been more intelligent than what was previously assumed.
“In my mind, this is another piece in the puzzle that reminds us that Neanderthals aren’t really that different from us,” Hardy said. “We don’t often think about string and fiber technology, and yet we wouldn’t be here today without it. This is the earliest current evidence for it, and it’s made by Neanderthals, and it’s not as simple as it looks.”
News of the discovery and its significance spread around the world this month thanks to coverage by the Associated Press, NBC News, the New York Times and NPR, among other outlets.
Numerous Kenyon students enabled this research, Hardy noted, through work done as part of Kenyon’s Summer Science Scholars program. The students helped him construct new stone tools and cords and put them to use in the field, burying the tools, using the tools to cut cords, constructing bags out of cordage — “anything we can think of that involves a rock and a string,” Hardy said. Then, students examined the wear-and-tear on the tools and cords under a microscope. Those resulting residue analyses have helped Hardy develop a comparative database that he and his colleagues consult when analyzing tools found in the field at prehistoric sites.
“Students’ work with me has expanded my knowledge of what I am looking for under the microscope. They have made it possible for me to do my work in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” Hardy said. “Kenyon students have a real impact on research, for me and for faculty across the College.”