Did Neanderthals use chemistry to help start fires?

Neanderthal sites contain rocks that could have been used to help start fires. Or not. However, there are other, clearer, cases of Neanderthal chemistry.


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Neanderthals had a deep understanding of the natural world. They could skilfully craft raw materials into excellent tools. But just how much could they alter these materials. Was there Neanderthal chemistry?

Fiery chemistry

When you live up t’North, during an ice age, heat is a big deal. It turns out that the Neanderthals may have used chemistry to help deal with this problem.

Blocks of manganese oxide have been found at Neanderthal sites. This is a naturally occurring material found in deposits throughout Europe. During the Palaeolithic, it was commonly used as a pigment. However, a series of experiments have found a possible alternate use for it.

Blocks of manganese recovered from Neanderthal sites

Blocks of manganese recovered from Neanderthal sites

It turns out that if you grind up the manganese and sprinkle it over wood then the wood catches fire a lot easier. Plus, it takes less heat to get the fire going in the first place. This could have proven an invaluable asset to a species trying to survive in the bitter cold.

Additionally, it demonstrates a deep understanding of the natural world. Although we already knew the Neanderthals were very smart, this just serves to reinforce just how intelligent they were.

At least, that is assuming this really is a case of Neanderthal chemistry.

Alternate explanations

The blocks of manganese oxide found at Neanderthal sites aren’t a new discovery.  In fact, they’ve been known about since the 1950s. So why has this chemistry only just been “discovered”?

Well, for the longest time these blocks were interpreted as pigment. The manganese oxide has a brilliant black colour, so it was thought it might have been used for painting (potentially body art, colouring beads for necklaces, or cave art). And this isn’t a case of scientists just trying to downplay the intelligence of Neanderthals. There was actually a lot of precedent that this is what manganese dioxide was used for.

For example, many cave art sites produced by modern humans used manganese oxide as black pigment. This includes perhaps the most famous cave art site in the world: Lascaux. In fact, some of the manganese used at Lascaux was heated to create unique tones.

Chemistry

A bull from Lascaux, painted with manganese

However, the authors of this paper reject this explanation on the grounds that they could have just used charcoal. This has a similar black tone and would have been much easier to obtain. Some estimates suggest that the painters at Lascaux would have had to travel >250 km to find their pigment. Charcoal can be produced in a fire. Additionally, charcoal was also used for pigment at other cave art sites.

Yet clearly this explanation is insufficient. After all, we have proven cases of people using the inconvenient manganese for painting. And they did so when they had to travel hundreds of kilometres for their pigments. At some Neanderthal sites manganese can be found <15 km away. In science, we normally prefer the most parsimonious explanation. However, people in the stone age clearly didn’t.

Proven Neanderthal chemistry

This case of Neanderthal chemistry seems a tad dubious. However, there are other, clearer, cases of Neanderthals exploiting the natural world in this advanced way.

Neanderthal tools that were hafted. The shaded section is what was coated in glue

Neanderthal tools that were hafted. The shaded section is what was coated in glue

In particular, the Neanderthals used some rather ingenious methods to attach stone points to wooden handles (a process known as hafting). Sometimes they used naturally occurring sticky materials, like bitumen. However, when that wasn’t available they used rather clever alternatives.

First they would take some birch bark and boil it up to >350 degrees. This had to be kept up for a long time. Eventually a sort of tar would begin to form, which had to be distilled and collected. A flat rock was often used as the “palette” it was collected on. The resulting material was an excellent glue for hafting and represents the first synthetic material ever made. And the Neanderthals were doing this 120,000 years ago!

Imagine what they could have achieved with a Bunsen burner or two.

tl;dr

Neanderthal sites contain rocks that could have been used to help start fires. Or not. However, there are other, clearer, cases of Neanderthal chemistry.

References

Cârciumaru, M., Ion, R.M., Niţu, E.C. and Ştefănescu, R., 2012. New evidence of adhesive as hafting material on Middle and Upper Palaeolithic artefacts from Gura Cheii-Râşnov Cave (Romania). Journal of Archaeological Science, 39(7), pp.1942-1950.

Chalmin, E., Vignaud, C., Salomon, H., Farges, F., Susini, J. and Menu, M., 2006. Minerals discovered in paleolithic black pigments by transmission electron microscopy and micro-X-ray absorption near-edge structure. Applied Physics A, 83(2), pp.213-218.

Chalmin, E., Farges, F., Vignaud, C., Susini, J., Menu, M. and Brown Jr, G.E., 2007. Discovery of unusual minerals in Paleolithic black pigments from Lascaux (France) and Ekain (Spain). X-Ray Absorption Fine Structure–XAFS 13, 882, pp.220-222.

Heyes, P.J., Anastasakis, K., de Jong, W., van Hoesel, A., Roebroeks, W. and Soressi, M., 2016. Selection and Use of Manganese Dioxide by Neanderthals. Scientific Reports, 6, p.22159.

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6 thoughts on “Did Neanderthals use chemistry to help start fires?”

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    One can certainly imagine someone working on a chunk of manganese near a fire (cause it’s cold out) and having some bits fall into the fire and, hey, surprise! 🙂

    A lot of science comes from serendipity!

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Particularly since manganese makes fire burn (iirc) a lovely purple. The cause and effect relationship would be pretty obvious, allowing this mistake to be repeated.

      1. Wyrd Smythe says:

        Yep. One of those “Whao! What? Wait… Wow!” moments.

        1. Adam Benton says:

          I was chatting about this discovery with some people in my department this afternoon. We arrived at the same conclusion as you: this likely first happened due to an accident.

          Which raised the question: what on earth were they doing with manganese in their camp to begin with? We were definitely stumped. Maybe they were using it for symbolism after all.

        2. Wyrd Smythe says:

          Or trying very hard to invent chrome rims…

          Are manganese’s pigment properties obvious? If so, that could be why. Or maybe there was an incident with a flaming torch at a manganese site?

        3. Adam Benton says:

          The curious thing is that it does make a good pigment, but it’s also relatively rare. People would have had to have travelled dozens – sometimes even hundreds – of kilometres to find the stuff. So whatever it was they were doing had to be relatively important to them, otherwise why bother. At least, that’s my interpretation.

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