Scientists have discovered the earliest known tool made from human bone— and it was apparently crafted by Neanderthals.
They have identified a human skull fragment dating back at least 50,000 years that bears signs it was used as a sharpener. It was found in a Neanderthal deposit — the first time our relatives were discovered making tools from human bone, reports Live Science.
The scientists note that as of yet, they have no way to prove or disprove whether the Neanderthals who made the tool did so intentionally — for instance, for rituals or after cannibalization.
The bone was first discovered in 1926 at the La Quina site, a former rock shelter at the foot of a limestone cliff flanking the left bank of the Voultron River in southwest France.
It was discovered with artifacts from the Mousterian industry, a method of making flint tools linked with Neanderthals. These fragments did not yield much information about the anatomy of these individuals, so they were mostly ignored at the museum at Lyon, France, for years.
Then paleoanthropologist Christine Verna at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, reinvestigated all the human remains at La Quina.
Using microscopic analysis of the bone fragment, she and her colleague Francesco d''Errico at the University of Bordeaux in France found evidence it was used to retouch stone tool edges.
They also detected scraping marks on the fragment, possibly resulting from cleaning of the skull before it was broken into pieces. The bone likely came from a Neanderthal, as only they were found at Mousterian deposits at La Quina.
A number of animal bones on the site, including a reindeer jaw and a horse tooth, also showed evidence they were used as retouching tools.
However, none of the other retouchers from this site or any other known Mousterian site was ever made from skull fragments, apparently making this new discovery unique and perhaps suggesting the human bone was intentionally chosen for use as a tool.