Neanderthal sticks
© PNASOne of the Neanderthal sticks found at Poggetti Vecchi.
Neanderthals living in the Tuscany region of Italy used fire in addition to stone to make tools, archaeologists have revealed.

In a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team led by Biancamaria Aranguren from the Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo in Florence, Italy, describes artefacts discovered during the construction of some thermal pools at a location known as Poggetti Vecchi.

The paper recounts the discovery of fragmented wooden and stone tools, together with the fossilised bones of the straight-tusked elephant (Paleoloxodon antiquus). The finds were located in the lowermost of seven archaeological soil layers, and radiometrically dated to about 171,000 years old.

The wooden tools were all made from a species of tree called boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), recognised as a heavy and dense wood. Formed into blunt points at one end with bulbous handles at the other, the metre-long implements were possibly made as digging implements, although the researchers don't rule out a secondary use as weapons.

Similar multi-purpose artefacts, the researchers note, are found even today among many hunter-gather societies.

The points and shafts show grooves and cut marks indicating that stone tools were used to chisel and scrape them into shape. But what interested Aranguren and her colleagues was evidence of surface charring.

Microanalysis suggested that fire had been deliberately and carefully applied in the manufacturing process, perhaps to reduce the physical effort needed to scrape and shape the wood.

The discovery of the sticks is regarded as significant for two reasons. The first is that wood, while thought to have been very widely used throughout prehistory, is rarely found in archaeological contexts because of its natural tendency to rot away.

The second is that it constitutes the oldest proof yet that Neanderthals learned to control fire.

"Poggetti Vecchi offers the earliest evidence of pyrotechnology in the fabrication of wooden tools, providing us with significant insight into the behaviour and abilities of early Neanderthals toward human modernity," the archaeologists conclude.