Researchers have found what they say are specialized bone tools made by Neanderthals in Europe thousands of years before modern humans are thought to have arrived to share such skills, a discovery that suggests modern man's distant cousins were more advanced than we thought. In a paper published yesterday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers discuss their discovery of four fragments of bone in southwestern France that they say were used as lissoirs, or smoothers, to make animal hides tougher and more water-resistant. The researchers believe the oldest tool is 51,000 years old, while the other three are between 42,000 and 47,000 years old. Similar tools are used by leather workers to this day.
Until now, scientists have believed that modern humans taught the Neanderthals how to make such tools, but modern humans are only believed to have reached central and western Europe 42,000 years ago. The find adds to an evolving understanding that these distant cousins weren't perhaps the brutes they have come to represent in popular culture—but also confirms that there is still much we don't know about them. "It's adding to a growing body of research, that's growing quite rapidly at the moment, that's showing that Neanderthals are capable and did produce tools ... in a way that is much more similar to modern humans than we thought even a couple of years ago," says an archaeologist at Australian National University not involved in the study. (Read more Neanderthals stories.)