Neanderthals created and used a suite of stone tools known as the Mousterian industry. When this toolkit was first created 200,000 years ago it was one of the most advanced technologies our family had ever made. Except time marched on, whilst the Mousterian didn’t. Whilst humans invented a suite of new, more complex stone tools the Neanderthals kept making the same old Mousterian right up until their extinction ~30,000 years ago. There were a few inventions here and there (but they are so few it makes the news when one is discovered); and they did adapt the Mousterian to fit new environments, but for the most part Neanderthal technology remained stuck where it started1.
Or did it? Measuring technological complexity is quite difficult given we bring a bunch of our own biases to the table. Is a tool more advanced if it is more efficient? Easier to make? Prettier? Depending on what we assume to be a measure of complexity we can get all sorts of different answers about which stone age group of tools was the best. As a result of this archaeologists have invested a lot of time trying to come up with ways of measuring technological complexity in as unbiased a way as possible.
Just before Crimbo another way to measure technological complexity was published. And this time it’s a goodun, the authors promise. The researchers show as much innovation as the Neanderthals with their title, calling it “Measuring the complexity of lithic technology“. They define complexity as “the minimum amount of information needed to manufacture a product.” This basically means the number of different techniques the creator is required to know to make the tool. Thus if you have two similar flakes, but one was made by hitting it with a rock whilst the other was made by hitting it with a rock and a piece of bone, the latter would be labelled more complex. They count out 35 such techniques seen in stone tools (which they call “lithic procedural units, but I shall call LPU due to laziness); although they describe them with fancier language than “hit with rock.” Like “hard hammer percusion.” Much more sciencey and sophisticated. They then test to see if their approach could actually be used to examine stone tools by examining 13 sites from the past 2 million years2.
And whilst I may have mocked their choice of title, this approach does seem to be a good one. They were able to identify the number of LPU in all their industries it revealed that the complexity of stone tools had increased over time. Which is kinda what you expect. Whilst it’s hard to draw ground breaking conclusions from 13 sites it is a pretty nice proof of concept2.
However, the most interesting thing is the Mousterian sites they examine. Now, given the lack of innovation amongst Neanderthal technology you would expect that its level of complexity remains relatively constant over time. Yet it doesn’t. Neanderthal technological complexity increases over time. What’s more it does so at the same rate as human technology over the same time period. As I said, it’s hard to draw ground breaking conclusions from a few data points (in this case 3 Neanderthal and 3 human sites), but it does suggest that Neanderthals may have been more innovative than we previously thought2. Hopefully the authors will examine more sites and we can see if this trend stands up, but it seems like we may have been to quick to assert our authority over our big-eyebrowed cousins.
- Kuhn, S. L. (2006). Trajectories of change in the Middle Paleolithic of Italy. InTransitions before the Transition (pp. 109-120). Springer US.
Charles Perreault, P. Jeffrey Brantingham, Steven L. Kuhn, Sarah Wurz, and Xing GaoCurrent Anthropology , Vol. 54, No. S8, Alternative Pathways to Complexity: Evolutionary Trajectories in the Middle Paleolithic and Middle Stone Age (December 2013) , pp. S397-S406