40,000-year-old yarn was woven by Neanderthals © The Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France

40,000-year-old yarn suggests Neanderthals had basic maths skills

Making the yarn would have required the Neanderthals to have a basic understanding of mathematical concepts, a study suggests.

Scientists have discovered what they believe to be the first direct evidence of yarn making, dating back more than 40,000 years.

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The 6mm-long cord fragment, which as found at an archaeological site in Abri du Maras in the south of France, was made by Neanderthals who lived during the Middle Palaeolithic period, 30,000 to 300,000 years ago.

According to the researchers, the findings published in the journal Scientific Reports suggest Neanderthals would have needed basic numeracy skills to create bundles of fibres to make yarn, meaning their cognitive abilities may have been more advanced than previously thought.

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An international team, led by Bruce Hardy, a professor of anthropology at Kenyon College in Ohio, US, analysed the cord fragment which was found twisted in three small bundles wrapped around a 60mm long stone tool. The scientists believe the cord may have been used as a handle for the tool or was part of a net or bag containing the implement.

Microscopic analysis showed that the fibres had been intertwined to create a three-ply cord, a feat that the authors believe would have required Neanderthals to have an understanding of basic mathematical concepts.

The Abri du Maras archaeological site in the south of France © M-H Moncel/Histoire Naturelle de l’Homme Préhistorique
The Abri du Maras archaeological site in the south of France © M-H Moncel/Histoire Naturelle de l’Homme Préhistorique

Further analysis revealed the strands were made of fibres taken from the inner bark of a conifer, indicating these hominids would have required “extensive knowledge of the growth and seasonality of these trees”.

Researchers believe the cord, dated between 41,000–52,000 years ago, is the oldest known proof of textile and fibre technology to date. They speculate this technology would have enabled Neanderthals to make items such as bags, mats, nets, fabric, baskets and snares.

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The authors wrote in their paper: “Understanding and use of twisted fibres implies the use of complex multi-component technology as well as a mathematical understanding of pairs, sets, and numbers.

“Added to recent evidence of birch bark tar, art, and shell beads, the idea that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to modern humans is becoming increasingly untenable.”

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Prior to this finding, the oldest discovered fibre fragments were from the Ohalo II site in Israel, believed to be around 19,000 years old.

Could Neanderthals speak?

Forty years ago, the consensus was that they could not. Neanderthals didn’t make cave paintings, or flint arrowheads, and their larynx wasn’t positioned low enough to allow them to make the full range of human vocal sounds.

But more recent discoveries have shown that Neanderthals had a hyoid bone, tongue nerves and hearing range that was very similar to modern humans, and quite different to other primates.

Neanderthals also shared the FOXP2 gene with us, which is thought to be involved in speech and language. Prof Steven Mithen of Reading University has suggested that Neanderthals may have had a ‘proto-language’ that was halfway between speech and music.

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