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Neanderthals and stone tools

By Gary Hughes | 31 January 2012

Research has scientifically supported the long held theory that early humans across Africa, Western Asia and Europe engineered stone tools.

Stone Tool
Stone Tool
Picture by University of Kent/Stephen J. Lycett.

For over a century, anthropologists have debated the significance of a group of stone age artifacts manufactured by at least three prehistoric hominin species, including the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). These artifacts, collectively known as ‘Levallois’, were manufactured across Europe, Western Asia and Africa as early as 300,000 years ago.

Levallois artifacts are flaked stone tools described by archaeologists as ‘prepared cores’ i.e. the stone core is shaped in a deliberate manner such that only after such specialised preparation could a prehistoric flintknapper remove a distinctive ‘Levallois flake’. Levallois flakes have long been suspected by researchers to be intentionally sought by prehistoric hominins for supposedly unique, standardised size and shape properties. However, such propositions were regarded as controversial by some, and in recent decades some researchers questioned whether Levallois tool production involved conscious, structured planning that resulted in predetermined, engineered products.

Now, an experimental study – in which a modern-day flintknapper replicated hundreds of Levallois artifacts – supports the notion that Levallois flakes were indeed engineered by prehistoric hominins. By combining experimental archaeology with morphometrics (the study of form) and multivariate statistical analysis, the Kent researchers have proved for the first time that Levallois flakes removed from these types of prepared cores are significantly more standardised than the flakes produced incidentally during Levallois core shaping (called ‘debitage flakes’). Importantly, they also identified the specific properties of Levallois flakes that would have made them preferable to past mobile hunter-gathering peoples.

‘Why Levallois? A morphometric comparison of experimental ‘preferential’ Levallois flakes versus debitage flakes’ (Metin I. Eren and Stephen J. Lycett, University of Kent) is published in the journal PLoS ONE.  Online copies may be viewed at: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0029273

For more information contact: Gary Hughes.

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