These 171,000-year-old digging sticks may have been made by Neandertals.

B. Arangurena et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 10.1073 (2018)

Could these be the oldest Neandertal tools made with fire?

In the spring of 2012, while digging a hole for a thermal pool, construction workers in Grosseto, Italy, hit scientific pay dirt: layers of stratified soil and rock filled with prehistoric bones and artifacts close to 171,000 years old. Excavating the pool would have to wait. With further digging, the researchers found tantalizing evidence of early fire use—nearly 60 partially burned digging sticks made mostly of boxwood. The most likely creators of the sticks were Neandertals, who are known to have lived in Europe at that time. If our extinct cousins did indeed craft the sticks, they represent the earliest use of fire for toolmaking among Neandertals.

Neandertals evolved in Europe perhaps as early as 400,000 years ago, but it’s unclear when they began to regularly use fire. Until now, the earliest evidence of Neandertals controlling fire dates to the late Middle Pleistocene, about 130,000 years ago. And because wood decomposes easier and faster than materials like bone and stone, it’s unusual to find prehistoric wooden artifacts. The oldest wooden weapons discovered so far are spears in Schöningen, Germany. They are thought to have been made by Homo heidelbergensis or Neandertals some 300,000 years ago.

Back in Grosseto, archaeologist Biancamaria Aranguren and her team from the Italian ministry of culture’s division of archaeology, fine arts, and landscape in Florence, got to work. Finding the wooden tools was a shock. “I thought, ‘It is impossible, what is this?’” Aranguren says. But the fact that the 58 sticks—made mostly of hard boxwood, but also of oak, ash, and juniper—were nearly identical convinced her that they were probably tools. Each stick appeared to have a handle on one end and a blunt, flattened tip at the other. Several also appeared charred along their entire lengths, indicating fire may have been used to help scrape off the bark. In addition to the sticks, archaeologists found about 200 stone artifacts at the site, as well as numerous fossilized bones from the extinct straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). Because none of these other objects showed burn marks, the fire was likely controlled for toolmaking by early people living at the site, Aranguren says.

To verify their find, the researchers tried to recreate the sticks. Using sharpened stones and a ground fire—similar to the methods prehistoric peoples would have used—they successfully created a replica. The charred stick closely resembled a class of artifacts called “digging sticks,” multipurpose tools found around the world; today’s hunter-gatherers in Australia and South Africa still use them.

The age of the new find means that the sticks were likely created by Neandertals, Aranguren and her team report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But not everyone is convinced. “There are no human bones associated with these sticks and tools, so how do we know they were Neandertals?” says Shara Bailey, a paleoanthropologist at New York University in New York City who was not involved with the find. She points out that research published just last month suggests modern humans may have journeyed to the Middle East as early as 177,000 years ago. Nonetheless, she says the discovery validates existing theories that early hominids used fire to manufacture tools.

Erich Fisher, an archaeologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, agrees. But he also wants to know more about the context in which these artifacts were found—specifically, what is their relationship to the elephant remains? “I think significantly more work needs to be done understanding this very unique assemblage that they have,” he says.

If the find is indeed linked to Neandertals, Fisher says that it could be one more nail in the coffin of their image as unsophisticated, technologically backward hominids. “This will reinforce the idea that there probably were commonalities,” in toolmaking across species, says John Rick, an archaeologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “It humanizes Neandertals.”