Neanderthals may have been creating more advanced tools previously associated only with modern humans, possibly even teaching the humans how to make those tools.
New research examines a bone tool previously associated only with modern humans in Europe, but were found to have been used by Neanderthals before modern humans arrived in Europe.
"It opens the possibility that in this case, maybe they learned this tool type from Neanderthals," said Shannon McPherron, co-author of the study and an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
The other possibility, considered in a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, was that modern humans arrived in Europe about 10,000 years earlier than scientists previously believed.
Scientists examined the bone tools -- which approximately were 50,000 years old -- from two Neanderthal cave sites in France. Modern humans are believed to have only arrived in Europe 40,000 years ago.
Until these tools were discovered, known Neanderthal bone tools looked just like their bone tools, and these -- called lissoir and used to work animal hides to make leather more water resistant and lustrous -- are similar to ones used by modern humans in Africa and Turkey around the same time.
"This paper adds further evidence that during their final 20,000 years, the Neanderthals displayed aspects of behavioral complexity that we normally associate with modern humans," said Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London, who was not involved in the study.
Still researchers aren't certain the Neanderthals used these tools for leather work, or whether they invented them independently or if they learned the tool-making skills from contact with modern humans.
Regardless, these tools indicate a huge leap in what we know Neanderthals were capable of making.