Section: News

Prof. Hardy gets worldwide attention for Neanderthal research

Prof. Hardy gets worldwide attention for Neanderthal research

Nobody on campus loves Neanderthals more than Bruce Hardy, professor of anthropology. After publishing his study in Scientific Reports on April 9 titled “Direct evidence of Neanderthal fibre technology and its cognitive and behavioral implications,” Hardy’s reputation for knowledge of Neanderthals has expanded to far beyond the Kenyon campus.

This report caught the eye of national outlets such as The New York Times and NPR. “It’s been a real whirlwind since all of this started,” Hardy wrote in an email to the Collegian. “Scientific Reports put out a press release on March 6 and within hours I had six phone interviews scheduled with different media outlets.”

Hardy’s research details his finding of a prehistoric piece of twisted fiber preserved on a flint tool, which points to evidence of fiber technology during this period. The tool and fiber were found in a rock structure in Abri du Maras, in the southern area of France, which Neanderthals inhabited around 41,000 to 52,000 years ago. The report is co-authored by scholars from France and Spain who have been studying this area with Hardy for decades.

Most artifacts from this period that are not made of solid materials such as stone or bones have likely decayed, which makes this discovery of fiber rare. “Almost everything that we want to see is gone,” Hardy said in an interview with NPR. “And so we have to try to find ways to get as much as we can out of the material that we do have.”

The twisted fibers, made from the inner bark of an evergreen tree, are a fragment of what is assumed to have been an entire three-ply cord. “There are three bundles of fibers that are twisted counterclockwise, and then those bundles, once they are twisted, are twisted back the other way, clockwise, around each other to form a cord or string,” Hardy told NPR.

This discovery may be the earliest evidence of string, now an essential element in the modern world. “Fiber technology is a foundational technology for humans,” Hardy said in an interview with the New York Times. “Essentially, we wouldn’t really be here today, where we are in the world, without twisted fibers.” Hardy proposes that these fiber cords could have been used by Neanderthals to build things such as fabric, baskets, bags and boats.

This evidence for Neanderthal use of fiber technology also goes against the stereotype of low Neanderthal intelligence and the idea that they were not as technologically advanced as humans today. “They are this sort of ultimate ‘other,’ this creature that is very similar to us yet somehow is supposed to be too stupid to live,” Hardy told NPR.

Additionally, Hardy told the New York Times, “I’m not saying they are geniuses. I am saying they are not morons.”

The report’s abstract sums up the conclusions made by the team of researchers: “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,” it reads. “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.”

For the future, Hardy thinks this site in France has more to offer and hopes Kenyon students can get involved in his research. “Excavations are ongoing at Abri du Maras, and we are now reaching lower levels that are approximately 90,000 years old. I feel sure that there are more surprises in store,” Hardy told the Collegian. “We are constantly underestimating our ancestors, particularly Neanderthals. I see lots of room for continued involvement of Kenyon students in the experimental portions of my research through the Summer Science Scholars program and elsewhere.”

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