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A Sensational Find in a Berlin Museum Collection: 40,000-Year-Old Adhesive Discovered

22.02.2024
Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte

Over 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals in France used an adhesive made out of ochre and bitumen to create grips for stone tools. Residue from this adhesive was still stuck firmly to objects which made their way into the collection of Berlin’s Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte from the famous Le Moustier archaeological site. This discovery offers insights into the cognitive capabilities of Neanderthals, which have long been underestimated.

Over 40,000 years ago, early humans from what is now France used an adhesive made out of a number of ingredients to create grips for stone tools. They manufactured an sophisticated mixture out of ochre and bitumen, two raw materials that would have to have been sourced from beyond their immediate environment. This is the earliest example of a multicomponent adhesive that has been found in Europe. Its discovery is the result of a reappraisal of pieces from the Neanderthal archaeological site of Le Moustier in Dordogne under the supervision of Dr Patrick Schmidt from the Department for Early Prehistory and Quarternary Ecology at Universität Tübingen and Dr Ewa Dutkiewicz from the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The development of adhesives and their application in the manufacturing of tools is considered one of the best kinds of material proof for the cultural evolution and cognitive capabilities of early humans. The study has been published in the scientific journal Science Advances.

From the Collection of the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte

The stone tools from Le Moustier had long been stored in the collection of the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte and had previously not been examined in great detail. They were recovered from the upper rock shelter at Le Moustier by Swiss archaeologist Otto Hauser, having been discovered in a deposit from the Middle Palaeolithic period. This epoch is even sometimes labelled as “Mousterian” in reference to the site. Neanderthals used the cave for the first time over 120,000 years ago, and traces of their presence end around 40,000 years ago.

Their scientific value was identified as part of an internal reappraisal of the collection. “The collection pieces were packed individually and had lain undisturbed since the 1960s. As a result, the attached residue of organic substances was very well preserved”, says Dr Dutkiewicz. The skull of a young Neanderthal, one of the most valuable pieces in the Berlin collection, originates from the lower rock shelter at Le Moustier.

Permanent Exhibition: “Stone Age, Bronze Age, Ice Age”

Visitors to the permanent exhibition on the Stone Age at the Neues Museum can currently see the skull of the young Neanderthal as well as other stone artefacts from the site. There are plans to integrate the stone artefacts from this study into the permanent exhibition as well.

Publication

Patrick Schmidt, Radu Iovita, Armelle Charrié-Duhaut, Gunther Möller, Abay Namen and Ewa Dutkiewicz: “Ochre-based compound adhesives at the Mousterian type-site document complex cognition and high investment”, Science Advances 10, eadl0822 (2024) 21 February 2024, 10.1126/sciadv.adl0822.