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Researchers: Neanderthals Invented Process to Produce Birch Tar

The tar can be used for glue, bug repellent, and killing germs. This finding tracks growing recognition of Neanderthals as intelligent
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Many of us grew up with “Neanderthal!” used as a term of abuse for a stupid person. A 2021 study from the University of Tübingen and others, dusted off at ScienceAlert, paints quite a different picture, in connection with Neanderthals’ manufacture of birch tar. The tar from burnt birch wood can be used as glue, insect repellent, and antiseptic. It can be scraped from a fire naturally or it can be produced in a controlled way. Which method Neanderthals used says something about the development of their culture.

The study authors, Patrick Schmidt et al., went to a lot of potentially messy trouble to try to answer the question:

Some think of black tar as a happy accident that Neanderthals simply scraped from surrounding rocks after burning birch bark. Others think the sticky, water-resistant material was carefully crafted in an underground oven long before our species learned the trick.

This might seem like a pedantic squabble, but intentionally distilling useful substances from raw materials is commonly assumed to be another activity that sets human intelligence apart from other species.

Based on the analysis of two pieces of birch tar found at an archaeological site in Germany, this latest study argues that “birch tar may document advanced technology, forward planning, and cultural capacity in Neanderthals.” (ScienceAlert, June 4, 2023)

Specifically, the authors say, “they distilled tar in an intentionally created underground environment that restricted oxygen flow and remained invisible during the process. This degree of complexity is unlikely to have been invented spontaneously. Our results suggest that Neanderthals invented or developed this process based on previous simpler methods and constitute one of the clearest indicators of cumulative cultural evolution in the European Middle Palaeolithic.”

Researchers: Stop underestimating Neanderthal intelligence!

They add,

If Neanderthals really were making tar as far back as 200,000 years, that beats any evidence of Homo sapiens making tar by 100,000 years.

“Thus,” 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 discoveries have shown that Neanderthals had complex diets involving multiple food preparation steps. Their use of fire, however, may not have been confined to heating or cooking.

The intelligence of our earlier cousins should not be underestimated any longer. (ScienceAlert, June 4, 2023)

Note that the authors recommended that we stop underestimating the intelligence of Neanderthals after they tried to do their job themselves, using only tools available back then.

But underestimating the intelligence of Neanderthals has not been merely an academic sport. There is a hard practical reason for it: The nearly impossible question of the evolution of the human mind would be rendered much easier if paleontologists could demonstrate a long, slow succession of not-quite-humans gradually becoming more like humans until… And Neanderthal man has been a complete, utter flop in that regard.

He certainly came well recommended for the role. For example, in 2011, ex-evangelical and unidirectional skeptic Michael Shermer told us, “… there is almost no evidence that Neanderthals would have ever ‘advanced’ beyond where they were when they disappeared 30,000 years ago. Even though paleoanthropologists disagree about a great many things, there is near total agreement in the literature that Neanderthals were not on their way to becoming ‘us.’”*

Okay, but a steady stream of new finds from Neanderthal culture in relation to speech, burying the dead, and producing art, has resulted in comments like that of Clive Finlayson, Director of the Gibraltar Museum, “The historical downgrading of our Neanderthal cousins has gone well beyond the scientific”.

And now here’s a sign of the times for you: Although Neanderthals no longer exist as a separate group, it turns out that many moderns have at least some Neanderthal DNA. That is surely the reason that do-it-yourself DNA analysis firm 23andMe now celebrates “Neanderthal Nerds.” (Ah yes. First rule of business, ignored by some high-profile firms in recent months: Don’t act like you think your loyal customer is the class dunce!)

The big, obvious question…

If Neanderthals were so smart, why didn’t they advance much faster technologically before they merged with the rest of us/died out? Ah, that’s one of the harsh facts about technology: Technological progress is not a simple stepladder.

The more technologies we already have, the faster the progress. For example, most progress awaited the development — much, much later — of mining and metallurgy. If we stopped using metals today, most current technology would just disappear. Creativity, without the right tools and materials, doesn’t suffice.

Also, there never were very many Neanderthals at any given time and they were widely scattered. The steady growth and increasing density of the human population means many more people working together on problems now, rapidly developing and communicating solutions. That likely means a continued rapid pace of innovation without the need for any corresponding increase in average human intelligence.

On the whole, that last fact should be good news for most of us. Meanwhile, where is that missing link?

* In Bruce L. Gordon and William A. Dembski, The Nature of Nature (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2011), p. 452). The paper is open access: Schmidt, P., Koch, T.J., Blessing, M.A. et al. Production method of the Königsaue birch tar documents cumulative culture in Neanderthals. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 15, 84 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-023-01789-2

You may also wish to read: Neanderthal Man: The long-lost relative turns up again, this time with documents.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Researchers: Neanderthals Invented Process to Produce Birch Tar