Becoming A Real-Life Caveman--For Science, Of Course

Metin Eren just spent three years in his lab living like a Neanderthal—or at least working like one. Starting with a specimen of a green sand silicate from the chalk cliffs at Seaton on the Devonshire coast, he used hammerstones to knock off flakes the way Neanderthals did and then a piece of boxwood to knock flakes off the way Homo sapiens sapiens, who replaced Neanderthals in Europe, did. He also found antler billets to be quite useful for the finer details of stone-tool making.

Eren played caveman because he is a student at Britain’s University of Exeter in “experimental archaeology,” which seeks to discover the past by going beyond mere observation to actual experimentation—in Eren’s case, working hunks of stone into flakes and blades. The idea was to determine whether the latter, which are narrower and were introduced by modern Homo sapiens about 40,000 years ago after they had poured into Europe from Africa via the Middle East about 100,000 years ago, were a superior technology. It is only by “learning how to physically make these tools that we were able to finally replicate them accurately enough to come up with our findings,” says Eren, who with colleagues describes the results this evening in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Judging by the examples of his handiwork that Eren posts on his googlepage, he would have made an excellent caveman.

According to the conventional wisdom in archaeology, blade-making is technologically superior to flake production: you get more blades from the same hunk of stone (the core), you are able to use more of the core and thus waste less, and blades have a much longer cutting edge per weight of stone, making them a more efficient tool. But these beliefs about the advantages of blade production have not been thoroughly tested by actually making lots of the tools the way our ancestors did. That's where Eren’s stone-age activities came in.

After producing piles of flakes and blades, it looked pretty doubtful that Neanderthals had the worse of it, tech-wise. Blade technology was no more efficient than flakes, he found. That casts doubt on the belief that Homo sapiens survived while Neanderthals went extinct (the last ones vanished about 28,000 years ago, in Spain) because of a superior intellect manifested in superior technology.

For one thing, the useful life of flake edges “surpasses that of blades of equivalent mass because the narrower blades are more rapidly exhausted by retouch,” the scientists find; the newer technology, in other words, had built-in obsolescence. For another, although blades do have more cutting edge per unit weight on average, the edge length varies wildly, with the result that blade-making is “a riskier business that is more prone to failures.” Nor does blade-making use the core stone more efficiently. “It remains to be shown that blades are in any way better butchery tools than flakes," write the scientists.

“Our research disputes a major pillar holding up the long-held assumption that Homo sapiens were more advanced than Neanderthals,” says Eren. “It is time for archaeologists to start searching for other reasons why Neanderthals became extinct while our ancestors survived. Technologically speaking, there is no clear advantage of one tool over the other. When we think of Neanderthals, we need to stop thinking in terms of 'stupid' or 'less advanced' and more in terms of 'different.'”

But if blades were not technologically superior to flakes, why did Homo sapiens adopt them? Because blades made what the scientists call “a fashion statement.” That is, they symbolized for the early modern humans a shared and flashy-looking technology that served as “cognitive glue,” binding members of this species into a cohesive whole recognizable by their fashion—er, blades. Eren put it this way: “Colonizing a continent isn’t easy. Colonizing a continent during the Ice Age is even harder. So, for early Homo sapiens colonizing Ice Age Europe, a new shared and flashy-looking technology might serve as one form of social glue by which larger social networks were bonded. Thus, during hard times and resource droughts these larger social net works might act like a type of ‘life insurance,’ ensuring exchange and trade among members on the same team.”