Innovative Neanderthals: Results from an integrated analytical approach applied to backed stone tools

Publication date: October 2019

Source: Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 110

Author(s): Davide Delpiano, Andrea Zupancich, Marco Peresani


The production of prepared backed artifacts during the Paleolithic is recognized as an important step in the design of stone tools for manual activities and the development of human tool ergonomics. Backed artifacts are generally identified as proxies of so-called “modern” behavior, partly because they tend to be associated with systematic hafting, but mostly because they are widespread within Middle Stone Age (MSA) or Early Upper Paleolithic (EUP) assemblages attributed to anatomically modern humans. However, in Europe these tools were first manufactured by Neanderthal groups associated with the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition (MAT) techno-complex and Discoid and Levallois technologies, using a range of flake blanks. Investigating the reasons for this behavioral leap forward can help to unravel the development and diffusion of various aspects defining the behavioral complexity of Paleolithic humans. In this paper we present a detailed analysis of one of the oldest and richest collections of prepared backed items preserved in Europe. We study several dozens of what – in a broad sense – are considered backed artifacts, with both natural and predetermined knapped backs, recovered from unit A9 at Fumane Cave, which is dated to at least 47.6 cal ky, and is characterized by discoid technology. Our methodology integrates results obtained from technological, techno-functional and use-wear analyses, further supported by experimental data. Two distinctive types of anthropogenic modifications have been identified, both aimed at creating a back or at modifying and accommodating an already existing back. By cross-checking our results with use-wear data, we show that some of these modifications were aimed at adjusting the shapes of the tools (knives and/or scrapers) for manual handling, although traces consistent with hafting have been recognized on a few specimens. Contextual information allows us to infer that these adjustments involved mainly tools used in precision activities, whose design and production implies varying levels of expertise and technical skills. Although still not systematic or standardized, the kinds of complex tool-making implied by backing can be considered as typical feature in the technological repertoires of late Neanderthals.

Graphical abstract

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