Though the bones of deer were more readily available, Neanderthals preferred to make leather-making tools with the rib bones of bison. Photo by Naomi Martisius/UC Davis
May 8 (UPI) -- When it came to selecting bones for leather-making tools, Neanderthals were surprisingly choosy. New archaeological analysis shows Neanderthals preferentially selected bovine rib bones to make a tool called a lissoir.
Neanderthals used lissoirs, made from animal rib bones, to soften up animal hides and transform them into workable leather. Most lissoirs are so worn smooth that it is impossible to tell what animal the rib bones were sourced from.
For the new study, published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers used highly sensitive mass spectrometry to analyze collagen protein residues on ancient lissoirs.
The technique -- called ZooMS, short for zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry -- involves the breakup of fossil samples into tiny fragments. By measuring the mass to charge ratio of each fragment, scientists can reconstruct their molecular origins.
Instead for drilling holes in fragile Neanderthal tools, scientists were able to collect tiny bone fragments from containers that were used to store lissoirs in museum collections.
The results of the novel analysis showed Neanderthals mostly made lissoirs from the ribs of animals belonging to the cattle family, including bison or aurochs, a wild relative of modern cattle that went extinct just a few hundred years ago.
The use of bovine bones is noteworthy because deer bones were much more plentiful. Archaeological remains suggest Neanderthals more frequently killed deer for food. The rib bones of cattle were heftier and more rigid.
"I think this shows that Neandertals really knew what they were doing," lead study author Naomi Martisius, research associate in the department of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, said in a news release. "They were deliberately picking up these larger ribs when they happened to come across these animals while hunting and they may have even kept these rib tools for a long time, like we would with a favorite wrench or screwdriver."
The latest findings add to the growing body of research that suggests Neanderthals were not the bumbling brutes they're sometimes depicted to be. Studies have shown Neanderthals developed burial traditions, harvested seafood, produced art and utilized a variety of primitive technologies. They were also, apparently, exacting tool makers.
"Neandertals knew that for a specific task, they needed a very particular tool," Martisius said. "They found what worked best and sought it out when it was available."