Neanderthals May Have Been The First To Carefully Concoct This Substance

It's possible that the first artificial material made on Earth wasn't created by our own species but rather by a close cousin as early as 200,000 years ago.

In a recent comprehensive chemical examination of Neanderthal artifacts manufactured with birch tar, researchers from Strasbourg University in France, the State Museum of Prehistory in Germany, and the University of Tübingen in Germany came to the conclusion that the method of extraction wasn't accidental.

Birch tar is a thick, black ooze that has been utilized for its many adhesive, water-repellent, and even antibacterial characteristics since the beginning of time. It was employed by some of the first early people who inhabited Europe to join components of their implements.

Heat can be used to remove the substance from birch bark, but it's unclear whether Neanderthals produced the tar on purpose or merely as a byproduct of enjoying a nice fire.

Some people believe that black tar was created by mistake by Neanderthals who burned birch bark and then scraped it off of nearby rocks. Others believe that long before our species discovered the method, the sticky, water-resistant substance was painstakingly manufactured in an underground oven.

This may seem like a pointless argument, but it is believed that consciously extracting useful compounds from inert substances is yet another trait that distinguishes human intelligence from that of other animals.

This most recent study makes the claim that "birch tar may document advanced technology, forward planning, and cultural capacity in Neanderthals" based on the examination of two pieces of birch tar discovered at an archaeological site in Germany.

The chemistry of the artifacts implies that oxygen was not present during their development. Theoretically, there were several ways to produce this low-oxygen profile, so researchers investigated them all.

Three of the techniques included some form of subsurface oven, while two used burning birch bark above ground.

Birch bark was burned above ground, causing the tar to condense on sticks or the tops of stones in the open air. The underground techniques primarily included burying birch bark that had been wrapped up and heated.

Finally, only birch tar produced underground has the same chemical composition as the antiquity discovered in Germany.

According to the research, Neanderthal tar is not the accidental "result of unintentional processes in open-air fires" but rather the product of a sophisticated underground technology that had to be meticulously planned because it could not be overseen after it was buried.

A precise recipe would have needed to be followed in order to accomplish such a complicated configuration. According to researchers, the method was likely developed by trial and error, with slow advances accumulating over time.

If Neanderthals genuinely produced tar 200,000 years ago, that would predate any indication of Homo sapiens producing it by 100,000 years.

"Thus," the researchers write, "what we show here for the first time is that Neanderthals invented and refined a transformative technique, most likely independently of the influence from Homo sapiens."

Previous research has revealed that Neanderthals had complicated diets that required several food preparation stages. However, it's possible that they didn't only utilize fire for cooking or warmth.

No longer should the intellect of our ancestors be disregarded.

The study was published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.