Hand-Carved, 400,000-Year-Old Bone Tool Used for Smoothing Leather Found in Italy

Found near Rome, the utensil is 100,000 years older than previous finds of this kind

Dig Site
The dig site at Castel di Guido in Italy featured numerous skeletons of straight-tusked elephants, from which many of the bone tools were produced. "Elephant bones for the Middle Pleistocene toolmaker" study

The discovery of a hand-carved bone at an archaeological site near Rome upends scientists' previous understanding of when early humans began using certain tools. Among a record trove of 400,000-year-old artifacts, scientists found a single item resembling a leather-smoothing tool called a lissoir, which was not commonly used until about 100,000 years later.

The huge haul of 98 bone tools was unearthed at the open-air dig at Castel di Guido. Similar to samples found at another site at Schöningen, Germany, the lissoir was created 400 millennia ago, well before the others.

“Smoothers […] are a common Upper Paleolithic tool made on ungulate ribs, longitudinally split to produce two thin half ribs,” researchers write in a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Plos One. “These half ribs are then shaped by grinding and scraping, with a rounded end polished by use, showing wear facets and striations.”

Scientists were surprised by the amount of bone tools found at the site, about 12 miles west of Rome. Just short of 100 artifacts, the haul is substantial since most sites usually feature only a few handmade tools. Located in a gully carved by a stream, the site appears to have been a production site for churning out early bone tools.

“We see other sites with bone tools at this time,” archaeologist Paola Villa, an adjoint curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and researcher at the Istituto Italiano di Paleontologia Umana, tells Enrico de Lazaro of Sci-News.com. “But there isn’t this variety of well-defined shapes.”

Most of the tools were made from the bones of now-extinct, straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), which either died or were killed at the watering hole, reports David Nield of Science Alert. The lissoir, however, was made from a wild cattle bone.

Because so many skeletons were found at the site, researchers suggest early hominids—probably Neanderthals—were able to develop a diversity of tool types and techniques for their needs.

“About 400,000 years ago, you start to see the habitual use of fire, and it’s the beginning of the Neanderthal lineage,” Villa tells Daniel Strain of CU Boulder Today. “This is a very important period for Castel di Guido.”

According to the study, some of the tools were sharp and could have been used to cut meat. Others were more like wedges that could have been used to split large, long bones.

“The Castel di Guido people had cognitive intellects that allowed them to produce complex bone technology,” Villa tells CU Boulder Today. “At other assemblages, there were enough bones for people to make a few pieces, but not enough to begin a standardized and systematic production of bone tools.”

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