The prehistoric Neanderthal man, left, as he is visited for the first time by another reconstruction of a homo neanderthalensis called Wilma at the Neanderthal museum in Mettmann, Germany.

Washington - Sometimes it seems Neanderthals just can't catch a break. Every time an archaeologist comes up with new evidence for something cool and clever they did, another researcher claims they learned it from their modern human cousins.

But new discoveries of polished bone tools at two prehistoric sites in France suggest that Neanderthals independently invented these finely made implements, without a helping hand from Homo sapiens. The finds may represent the best sign yet that Neanderthals were no boneheads when it came to technological innovation.

Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia between about 135 000 and 35 000 years ago, after which they went extinct. For a long while they had the territory to themselves; but then, sometime between about 45 000 and 40 000 years ago, modern humans moved into Europe from Africa. At roughly the same time, Neanderthal behaviour seemed to change and become more “modern”: Their stone tools became more sophisticated, they began to wear jewellry, and they started using bone tools. For many archaeologists, the timing strongly suggested that Neanderthals had copied modern human behaviour. But other researchers insisted that Neandertals had developed the behaviours before modern humans came to town. The debate often revolved around esoteric discussions of how to interpret radiocarbon dates from sites that both Neanderthals and moderns had occupied, contamination of Neanderthal sites by modern human artifacts, and other technical details.

Now, two teams of archaeologists working at Neanderthal sites in the Dordogne region of southwest France have found four sophisticated bone tools that they say are dated earlier than the first known existence of modern humans in the region. Three of the bones were found by a team led by Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, working at a site called the Abri Peyrony; and the fourth, by a group led by Marie Soressi of Leiden University in the Netherlands, at the site of Pech-de-l'Azé, about 35 kilometres away.

As the two teams jointly reported online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, all the bone tools, made from either red deer or reindeer ribs, are a specialised type of implement called a lissoir (French for “to polish”), previously found only at modern human sites. Most archaeologists think that lissoirs, which have a smooth rounded tip, were used to make animal hides more lustrous and impermeable to water; fine striations found on the bone implements were consistent with that use.

The team says there's little doubt that Neanderthals made the bone tools, because both sites also feature stone tools typical of Neanderthal culture-such as handheld axs and a distinctive knife-and show no evidence of modern human occupation at any time. As for the possibility that Neanderthals learned this skill from modern humans, the archaeologists say that the dates from the sites make this very unlikely. Radiocarbon analysis of the archaeological layers where the bones were found at Abri Peyrony range from nearly 48 000 to 41 000 years ago, thus beginning before the earliest known modern human occupation of Western Europe; and dates from Pech-de-l'Azé, determined by a sophisticated technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), clock in at about 51 000 years ago, “well before our current best evidence for moderns in Europe,” McPherron says.

And the bone tools keep coming. Since the new paper went to press, a graduate student working with the team, who was going through material earlier found at Pech-de-l'Azé, found yet another lissoir, McPherron tells ScienceNOW.

The team thinks its new study leaves little doubt that Neanderthal technical abilities have been underestimated in the past. “At about 50 000 years, the behaviour of some Neanderthal groups was highly sophisticated, and as sophisticated as early modern human behaviour of the same time range elsewhere in Europe,” Soressi says. Indeed, Soressi and her colleagues say, the findings raise an even more intriguing possibility: That modern humans in Europe learned some of their technologies, including the making of fine bone tools, from Neanderthals, rather than the other way around.

For some defenders of Neanderthal abilities, the new discoveries seal the deal. “I think there is no wiggle room for sceptics,” says Francesco d'Errico, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France. And at least one leading sceptic, archaeologist Harold Dibble of the University of Pennsylvania, says that he finds the new evidence “more convincing.” Dibble, who earlier also worked at Pech-de-l'Azé but was not involved in the current work, says that “the dates of these deposits are quite early and clearly predate the arrival of moderns by too many millennia.”

But Jean-Jacques Hublin, an anthropologist also at the Max Planck Institute, is not swayed. He points out that some researchers, including himself, think modern humans were in central Europe by at least 48 000 years ago and that the error margin for the 51 000-year-old dates for Pech-de-l'Azé-plus or minus 2000 years-could still put it in the range of modern human occupation. In that case, Neanderthals could have learned to make the bone tools from incoming H. sapiens after all. “These lissoirs were not discovered in layers 91 000 or 73 000 years old, and it would be difficult to argue that they represent an old Neanderthal tradition,” he says.

Dibble and d'Errico, who disagree on many aspects of Neanderthal behaviour, both caution against drawing too many conclusions about Neanderthal mental abilities from the bone tools alone. “I have a definite problem using technology as a criterion for modernity,” Dibble says. d'Errico agrees: “A bone tool can be very specialised [in its function] and at the same quite simple to make and use,” he says, citing bone toothpicks, which Neanderthals also made. “They are not necessarily the expression of an advanced technology and cognition.” - The Washington Post

This is adapted from ScienceNOW, the online daily news service of the journal Science.