Neanderthals 'knew what they were doing': Archæologist Dr Naomi Martisius discusses her findings about Neanderthals' behaviour with Wikinews

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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Portrait of Dr Naomi Martisius. (Image: acagastya)

Last month, a study conducted by archæologist Dr. Naomi Martisius and other researchers concluded Neanderthals living in Europe tens of thousands of years ago were more sophisticated than previously thought. The now-extinct species used to carefully select bones from a particular animal species to manufacture their bone tools, the research showed. The research was published on May 8 in Nature's Scientific Reports journal.

Bone tools used by Neanderthals. (Image: Naomi L. Martisius, Frido Welker, Tamara Dogandžić, Mark N. Grote, William Rendu, Virginie Sinet-Mathiot, Arndt Wilcke, Shannon J. P. McPherron, Marie Soressi & Teresa E. Steele)

Dr Martisius and her team used five bone tools discovered from Neanderthals' sites in southwest France for this research. Four of these bone tools were found in a site called Abri Peyrony and the other one was from Pech-de-l’Azé I. These tools were just a few centimetres in size and were about 50 thousand years old, Dr Martisius told Wikinews. Microscopy analysis of these bone tools called lissoirs (smoothers) suggested Neanderthals used these tools for working animal skin to leathers.

The study stated the fauna of the sites were primarily medium-sized ungulates such as reindeer, in one layer nearly 90%. Despite the overabundance of medium-sized ungulates, Neanderthals used ribs of large bovids for making lissoirs. Dr Martisius told Wikinews this was likely due to the physical characteristics of the bovid ribs, which were "thicker" and "stronger" as compared to the "thin and flimsy ribs" of reindeers. In order to check the origins of the bone tools, the researchers used a technology called non-destructive Zooarchæology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS).

Video description of how ZooMS analysis is conducted. (Image: Archaeology, University of York)

Instead of damaging the bone artefacts in order to discover its origins, the researchers collected collagen from the plastic containers in which these artefacts were kept. Collagen is a type of protein. These bone artefacts were kept in plastic containers: some were kept for about five years, some for just a few months. During this time, the collagen proteins from bone tools were stuck to the walls of its plastic containers. The collagen samples collected from the walls of the containers are broken into smaller molecules called peptides by using a chemical enzyme called trypsin.

Example of a MALDI-ToF spectra. (Image: Krista McGrath, Keri Rowsell, Christian Gates St-Pierre, Andrew Tedder, George Foody, Carolynne Roberts, Camilla Speller & Matthew Collins)

After the trypsin has broken collagen fibres into peptides, it is analysed using a technology called Matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) Time-of-Flight mass spectrometer (ToF MS). The assisting matrix is a coloured compound. The acidic peptide is combined with the matrix, vapourised, and peptides are released. Some of them are positively-charged particles which travel across a vacuum tube in an electric field. Depending on the weight of the peptides, these molecules reach the end of the vacuum tube at different instances of time, forming a spectrum. These graphs are like unique fingerprints of a species: they are different for different species of animals. Looking at the database of such graphs, taxonomic identifications of the collagen proteins came be made.

Watch the entire interview with Dr Naomi Martisius.

All four bone tools from Abri Peyrony gave positive results and showed that the bones were made from large bovids, even though reindeer were more abundant during that time. One of the advantages of using bovid ribs over reindeer's thin ribs was the bovid ribs would be more resistant to breaking during flexion, Dr Martisius said.

Dr Martisius said such non-destructive ZooMS analysis was previously conducted, but for tools no older than a few centuries. She said such an analysis had never been previously conducted for artefacts so ancient.

Wikinews caught up with Dr Martisius to discuss this research in-depth.

Interview with Dr Naomi Martisius


Thank you for agreeing to discuss your findings. I'd like to ask you about your discovery: its findings, and the inferences of, and anything that we can do for the future investigation.

((Naomi Martisius)) That's a lot you just said out there.

A skull of a European Neanderthal (Image: Luna04)

((WN)) What prompted your interest in archæology?

((Naomi Martisius)) Okay. Well, I guess that goes back all the way to my childhood; it's sort of a lifelong thing for me. My father was very interested in history. So I think that sort of inspired me to study ancient humans, I guess. But specifically archæology: I really had no idea what archæology is. And I think that the general public also doesn't really have an idea of what archæology is. And so, it wasn't until I got into school, started studying it, that I figure[d] out what archæology was. You know, it's so much more than history, or studying artefacts to interpret history, right? History is more so, about what is written down, what the prominent people in society wrote down, right? And archæology is about figuring out what normal everyday people did. So, I think it's — I think it's really cool what we can learn doing archæology.

((WN)) What was the initial purpose of this study?

((Naomi Martisius)) So. The initial purpose, really, was just to find out what animals the bone — I was studying bone tools for my dissertation, and, there's all sorts of different things one can learn, studying bone tools. But, to specifically figure out what animals these bones came from would be a little more difficult studying bone tools because bone tools are transformed, either through manufacturing or through use, or both depending on which bone tools they are. But these were small little fragments, really really hard to identify based on morphological characteristics alone. So we wanted to apply this method ZooMS to look at the — well, to study the collagen in the bone, to then assess what animals these bones came from.

The bone tools used for this study came from locations in Southwest France (Image: Naomi L. Martisius, Frido Welker, Tamara Dogandžić, Mark N. Grote, William Rendu, Virginie Sinet-Mathiot, Arndt Wilcke, Shannon J. P. McPherron, Marie Soressi & Teresa E. Steele )

((WN)) Could you briefly explain the study and its findings?

((Naomi Martisius)) I don't know how brief I can be, but, I'll try to be brief. [laughs] Like I mentioned in the previous question, I was studying these bone tools; they're specifically bone tools that Neandertals made and used; and we just had five of these. They came from two different sites in the southwest of France. One artefact came from this one site called Pech-de-l’Azé I, and then four came from another site Abri Peyrony; and these bone tools were found actually across three different archæoological layers; there are two different archæoological layers at Abri Peyrony.

Skeleton of aurochs. Aurochs is an extinct bovid. (Image: Marcus Sümnick)

So, these five bone tools are all pretty similar. They all looked very similar, they had a similar size, similar shape; they all came from some sort of animal rib, we can tell that by doing a morphological analysis — but we wanted to use Zooarchæology by Mass Spectrometry to try to assess what animal species the bones came from. I mentioned the one, from this other site Pech-de-l’Azé: we didn't get any results from that one artefact; but then the four from Abri Peyrony, they all came back with positive results, all actually having the same ID, either coming from bison or aurochs; so, some sort of large bovid.

The layers from where bone tools were obtained were dominated by the skeletal remains of reindeers. (Image: Are G Nilsen)

And then, there's so much more involved in the study too; those are the main results. But then we compared the results from the ZooMS analysis to the zooarchæoological analysis from all of the faunal remains at the site. And what was really cool was that in one of the archæoological layers, where three of these bone tools came from, the layer was dominated by reindeer, having ninety per cent reindeer remains in the site.

The fauna distribution of identified specimen at the Abri Peyrony site; as mentioned in the research paper.

██ Hare: 3

██ Roe deer: 5

██ Red deer: 7

██ Reindeer: 276

██ Red deer/reindeer: 241

██ Cervid (antler tips): 2

██ Cervid/saiga: 1

██ Bison/Aurochs: 26

██ Large ungulate: 45

██ Rhinoceros: 1

██ medium carnivore: 1

██ large carnivore: 1

(Image: acagastya)

Just thinking about that — we did a whole statistical analysis too, but — just thinking about that: 90 per cent reindeer, and then three of these bone tools come from this large bovid, really really seems like Neandertals specifically chose to use the large bovid's ribs as their tool of choice; and then like I say we also did a statistical analysis that supported that as well, that Neandertals were selecting these large bovid ribs.

Naomi Martisius with a bone tool. (Image: Naomi Martisius)

((WN)) How did you get involved in this study?

((Naomi Martisius)) So, that actually started back quite a while ago now, for me. It was before I even got into graduate school. It was back when I was an undergraduate student. I got my graduate degree as well as my undergraduate degree at UC Davis, so that's where I've been for a while: University of California Davis. And as an undergrad I took a zooarchæology course from Teresa Steele, who would then turn out to be my dissertation advisor, and so I was doing an internship with her. She was studying the faunal remains from this site Abri Peyrony. And she had me doing really really tedious work: just counting and weighing teeny-tiny little pieces of bone that were like two centimetres or less [1 cm = about 0.39 inch] in size. And then when I was doing that work I actually found one of these bone tools. And so then, one thing led to the next: I get to grad school, then I get to study these bone tools, and, well, now here we are. But, that was like, was it ten? I guess that was nine years ago when I first started working with Dr Teresa Steele.

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where a part of the research was conducted. (Image: Usingmodel)

((WN)) How many institutes were involved in this research?

((Naomi Martisius)) So, on the paper, I think it lists seven different institutes. But two of the institutions were the main institutions I would say. So University of California Davis, where I got my dissertation, where my advisor also is a professor. But then, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology is where the — for the most part — where the ZooMS analysis was conducted; and then several researchers are also affiliated with the Max Planck Institute. And then there are some other institutions that some of the other researchers are affiliated with. But, I would say, the majority of work either happened at UC Davis or at the Max Planck Institute.

Naomi Martisius (centre) excavating at the site of Abri Peyrony in the southwest France. (Image: Naomi Martisius)

((WN)) What activities did this study involve?

((Naomi Martisius)) What activities. So, the main activities I would say would be the ZooMS analysis; the zooarchæological analysis, or the study of the fauna; and then the statistical analyses. But in addition to those, I mean there's so many different things that are involved in a study like this, things that happened even before we started doing the study: just having to excavate the site, and gather the artefacts, and wash them, and various things like that. But then also, you know, writing, and brainstorming, and emailing colleagues, and data organisation; there's all sorts of different things that [go] on.

((WN)) What was the timeline of this study?

((Naomi Martisius)) Yeah. It's even hard for me to remember right now actually [laughs]. But I think when we first decided to do a study like this, it would have been back in 2017. And then from there, I think some of the first results were obtained at the end of 2017. — When I say results, I mean the first ZooMS results were obtained at the end of 2017. And that's when I started comparing the ZooMS results to the rest of the fauna at the site: which species of fauna [were] found at the site. Not all of the bone tools had ZooMS results right away. So that, trying to get more ZooMS results took several tries, several more months, and then I think by the end of 2018, we had a solid draft about ready to submit for publication. But then; well, this is getting into a whole lot of other things. But anyway, we had to then collect more data. We decided to generate more ZooMS data on just the fauna from the site, to compare the results: non-destructive results from the fauna, to the morphological identifications to see if those were corroborated. And so that was mostly done in 2019. And then at the end of 2019, we had... pretty much our final draft — or, near-final draft — of the paper [ready] to go before it was submitted for publication. So anyway, several years.

Portrait of Teresa E. Steele.
Portrait of Teresa E. Steele. (Image: UC Davis)
Portrait of Shannon McPherron.
Portrait of Shannon McPherron. (Image: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)
Portrait of Marie Soressi.
Portrait of Marie Soressi. (Image: Universiteit Leiden)
Naomi Martisius's dissertation advisors.

((WN)) What were the roles of other people involved in the study?

((Naomi Martisius)) So: there were, um, three researchers on this study. The last three listed on the paper — Teresa Steele, Shannon McPherron, and Marie Soressi — they're all my dissertation advisors. I already mentioned Teresa Steele as my main dissertation adviser but the two other, also, [were] external advisors for me. And they helped a lot in constructing the design of the research. So that was a big role that they played there.

Frido Welker: I think it says right at the top of the paper that he contributed equally to this research as I did. So Frido is the ZooMS expert on this paper: so I'm not. [...] I'm the bone tool expert, and Frido Walker is the ZooMS expert. So he did the initial ZooMS analyses. And then he also got one of his grad students involved — Virginie Sinet-Mathiot — and she did some subsequent ZooMS analyses. And then they also had someone named Arndt Wilcke, I don't know if I'm pronouncing that right, he also helped with some of the ZooMS analyses. And then, Tamara; and I always say her last name wrong; Dogandžić, I think. She was one of the archæoologists at Abri Peyrony: so she helped with context — site context — where these bone tools came from, in the site. And then, William Rendu worked at the Pech-de-l’Azé I site. So he helped with context there, and the fauna there. And then, did I miss anyone? Oh! Mark Grote! He was a very important person on this paper. He was the statistician. And so I worked closely with him doing the statistical analysis. I think I got everyone.

Portrait of Frido Welker
Portrait of Frido Welker. (Image: Frido Welker)
Portrait of Virginie Sinet-Mathiot.
Portrait of Virginie Sinet-Mathiot. (Image: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)
Portrait of Arndt Wilcke.
Portrait of Arndt Wilcke. (Image: Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology)
Portrait of Tamara Dogandžić.
Portrait of Tamara Dogandžić. (Image: University of Pennsylvania)
Portrait of William Rendu.
Portrait of William Rendu. (Image: New York University)
Portrait of Mark Grote.
Portrait of Mark Grote. (Image: UC Davis)
Other researchers on this study.

((WN)) Which activity took the most time and attention?

((Naomi Martisius)) Which activity took the most time? And attention. Um. I mean this might not be the answer you were looking for, but probably just coordinating everyone's schedules. [laughs] And getting everyone on the same track. Yeah. I mean, actually when you go and do something: one thing doesn't necessarily take all that long. But then, it builds up to taking a lot of time altogether.

((WN)) What was the most difficult part of the study?

((Naomi Martisius)) The most. Difficult. Part. Um. [pause] Well, I think it would probably have to do with validating our results. So since we conducted a non-destructive study, then that brings in the big issue: how do we know that our results are actually what we say they are. Since it's non-destructive, were we even testing something that came from the bone. So really really conducting a lot of separate analyses to make sure samples weren't contaminated and making sure that our results were actually coming from the bones: I think that was probably the most difficult part.

((WN)) How long did it take to conduct the research?

((Naomi Martisius)) Well, like I said, we started back in 2017. So, with all the various aspects put together, it's probably two and a half years. But then, like I said in a previous question, there's a lot of things that happened even before we decided to do this study. So I don't know; it depends [laughs] exactly what you're asking.

Cloven hooves of a deer. (Image: Foto von Joachim Bäcker)

((WN)) Were you anticipating this outcome?

((Naomi Martisius)) Um. Yeah, that's a good question. Because — So these bone tools were found before I was even involved in this study, or, some of the bones were, right? I told you that I found one — actually found two — myself. But some of these other ones were found before I was even involved. And I think that the general consensus of the researchers at that time was that these probably came from medium-sized ungulates. Ungulates would be hooved animals. So like a deer. And that really had to do with the size of these bone tools: they were pretty small and worn down. But, once I started studying; and I'd looked at a lot of these similar types of bone tools from other contexts — not that were made and used by Neandertals, but that were made and used by people like you and me in more recent time periods. And after looking at those, I had an inkling that they were actually larger bovids — some sort of large bovids — but I couldn't prove it. Just, that's what I figured at that point. And so, it was just exciting to see that I predicted it correctly, even though I didn't say it anywhere in publication or anything but just in my mind — that's what I thought it was.

Membrane box used for curating Abri Peyrony lissoir, AP-7839, for more than five years. (Image: Naomi Martisius)

((WN)) What was the most fascinating aspect of this study?

((Naomi Martisius)) So. For me it is, like, truly fascinating that we can test plastic that once touched a bone. And so there is this transfer of collagen from the bone to the plastic: and so we can get this result — get the collagen off of the plastic — so that's just like — when I first even heard about the idea, considered doing it, it just seemed fantastical to me. So, that was really cool.

((WN)) What were the challenges that the team faced during the research?

((Naomi Martisius)) Actually I think I've mentioned this in one of those previous questions, but: I think the main challenge had to do with validating our results. And just proving that our results are what we say they are.

Neanderthals used retouchers like these to modify their stone tools.
Image: Didier Descouens.

((WN)) How frequently did the Neanderthals used bones to manufacture tools?

((Naomi Martisius)) So, in general, when Neandertals were living in Europe, and in the Near East, they didn't use very many bone tools; or at least they don't preserve well, or if they were using bone tools, the evidence of it is pretty hard to come by, so it's kind of hard to say if they were using bone tools. So the most common type of bone tools that they used were these bone fragments that they then used to sharpen the edge of a stone tool. We call those retouchers. So I would say they used those fairly frequently. Because they were using stone tools a lot. We find lots and lots of stone tools in the archæoological record. And so, they need to sharpen their stone tools somehow, so often they did use bone to sharpen them. So that type of bone tool would be considered an opportunistic bone tool: you just pick up a piece of bone and use it. But, the type of bone tool that was in this study — I don't even think I've said the name yet — lissoirs, which means "smoother". Those were extremely uncommon; and so far they've only been found at a handful of sites. And I think there are some other bone tools that Neandertals used in later time periods, so the latest Neandertals before they go extinct. But I would say for the most part they don't seem to be using, or they didn't seem to be using bone tools very frequently.

((WN)) You mentioned the bones were obtained from two different sites. Geographically, how far were these sites located from each other?

((Naomi Martisius)) They're about 35 kilometres [almost 22 miles] away in this nice little quaint region of the southwest of France, on different tributaries of a river [the Dordogne] in the southwest of France.

Skull of a neanderthal child found at Pech-de- l'Azé. (Image: Eunostos)
Skeleton of "The Man of Combe-Capelle". (Image: Internet Archive Book Images)
The skull of "The Man of Combe-Capelle".
Image: Dr. Günter Bechly.

((WN)) What do we know about the history of these sites and the bone tools?

((Naomi Martisius)) So. Both these sites were actually excavated several times. The Pech-de-l’Azé site is actually a complex of sites; so this one is Pech-de-l’Azé I, and I believe they have II, III, IV, and V. I'm not sure if they all have archæology found at them. Yes, I'd have to go back and look at the literature about that. But I know the Pech-de-l’Azé complex of sites was excavated over a hundred years ago. And I know back in 1909, there was the remains of a Neandertal child found. So that's probably what that site is most famous for. And then, the other site Abri Peyrony is again, a site in a complex of sites. But the complex there is called the Combe-Capelle sites. I think it was originally published back in 1925; the first excavations would have happened a few years before that. And then it was re-excavated in the 90s, and then again in — around 2010. Maybe 2009–11, something like that. And that was the most recent excavation there.

((WN)) How old are the tools that you and your team studied?

((Naomi Martisius)) So, these bone tools are about the same age at both sites: about 50 thousand years old.

((WN)) How did you obtain those specimens?

((Naomi Martisius)) How did we obtain them. Well, so they were found either during excavation on-site, or they were found after excavation when all the artefacts were being cleaned. Once we excavate a site, we collect them all, we tag them all, and then they go with the rest of the collection. But because they were potential bone tools, they were kept aside, and then I just needed permission from the two PIs on these two different sites. And so, the two PIs were; I mentioned them earlier; Shannon McPherron — when I say PI: principal investigator — Shannon McPherron is the PI on Abri Peyrony. And Marie Soressi is the PI for Pech-de-l’Azé I.

((WN)) You mentioned the result from one of the sites did not give any positive results. What could be the reason for that?

((Naomi Martisius)) So, most of the time, it has to do with just collagen preservation. So that particular bone likely did not have enough collagen left in it to then test. I guess I can't say that with 100% confidence because we didn't destructively sample that one. Maybe we would have had result if we actually destructively sampled it. We just did the non-destructive method and we couldn't get results. So, chances are it did have less collagen than the other ones.

((WN)) What do we know about lissoirs? And do we know how neanderthals manufactured lissoirs?

((Naomi Martisius)) So, lissoir: we can say that's the typological — type of tool. So it's a category of tool that Neandertals made and used. This particular category of tool was actually found in archæoological sites that are a little younger than these Neandertal sites. So it was known for a very long time in some of these other sites made by Homo sapiens — so not Neandertals: Homo sapiens, people like me and you. So in general, what we know about lissoirs is that they're these elongated pieces of bones — often made on ribs, but not always, sometimes they're made on the long bone of an animal, like a leg bone of an animal. But most often they're made on ribs. And they have this rounded distal working end that often exhibits polish. So these Neandertal-made ones, found at this Neandertal site, fits really well into this category [with] these other ones used by Homo sapiens in subsequent time periods. And we know that they were manufactured because if you use a microscope to look at the surface of these bone tools you will see striations — parallel striations — at the tip of the tools, and along the edges of the tools that are consistent with scraping and grinding against a stone tool. So a stone tool would have been used to shape the end of it.

((WN)) How did you confirm the lissoir was used for working animal skin to leather?

((Naomi Martisius)) So. There was a study back in 2013 that I was actually a co-author on, but I hadn't done any of the analyses on the bone tools yet at that point. There were other people doing the analyses on the bone tools at that point. And so, one of the co-authors on that paper, back in 2013, that was published in PNAS, did what they call a use-wear of microwear analysis on the Pech-de-l’Azé I piece. And so, she used a high-powered microscope and compared the microtopography of the bone tool to a microtopography of an experimental tool that was used on leather. And they looked very very similar. So in general, the changes that happen to the surface of the bone looked very very consistent with use on something soft and supple like leather. And then, since 2013, for my dissertation I have done a very similar study myself and would say for the most part the other tools look pretty similar. Yeah. That stuff isn't published yet. But hopefully, it will be published soon.

((WN)) Do we know how Neanderthals used the leather?

((Naomi Martisius)) Um, no. And that would be really really difficult to get it.

I imagine it was used as clothing. And probably even footwear. Maybe turned into shoes of some sort. This clothing and footwear would be pretty simple. We know they didn't have anything sophisticated, like needles for sewing anything tailored. But probably some sort of clothing, I would say.

But the leather probably was used for other things as well, like you know: you could make a bag out of it. Or you could use it as shelter over a cave opening or something. Um, a blanket yeah, when they were sleeping. There's probably all sorts of different uses.

((WN)) Which technologies were used for the study?

((Naomi Martisius)) So do you mean specifically to study the artefacts? Technologies on the artefacts?

((WN)) Yes.

((Naomi Martisius)) For this study I would say no, it was just the ZooMS that was done on the artefacts.

((WN)) Could you briefly explain how ZooMS technology works?

((Naomi Martisius)) Sure. ZooMS analyses the collagen from ancient bones. Collagen is an organic protein that degrades over time; so depending how well this collagen is preserved, in this archæological bone, you may or may not have enough collagen to study. But then, if you do have enough collagen — ZooMS can basically be used as a chemical fingerprint to identify a species that the bones came from.

So the collagen gets broken down into peptide components. And depending on which peptides are there — you can sort of think of it like DNA when you have certain genes there: the presence of a gene means something — in ZooMS the presence of a particular protein, or the combination of a couple different proteins, means it belongs to a certain animal. So, if you just have one protein present, you know, it might be kind of difficult to say what animal it came from; but the more you have, then you can be more confident in what animal, or type of animal it's coming from.

Skeleton of a reindeer in Greenland. (Image: Algkalv)

((WN)) What were the advantages of using bones from bovine animals over reindeer's?

((Naomi Martisius)) So, I think it mostly has to do with the size. These large bovids are definitely larger than reindeer. Reindeer actually have pretty thin and flimsy ribs. And large bovids like cattle, or bison, they have really really robust ribs. And so, they're thicker, they're stronger, and they're gonna be more resistant to breaking during flexion. And probably the action of using this tool would cause it to bend under pressure. And so when you have this thicker rib, then there's less chance that it's gonna break during use.

((WN)) Apart from the strength, how do the rib bones of bovines differ from those of reindeers?

((Naomi Martisius)) I guess they'd be a little longer as well. I mean it's a bigger animal so they're gonna be longer. The morphology is probably gonna be slightly different. I would say, in general, ungulates — I mentioned that term before: hoofed animals — they have pretty similar rib morphologies: flatter ribs. If you just had a piece of the rib on the side of the animal, then you might not be able to tell what it came from. But if you have a piece preserved, like the head of the rib, or near the vertebral articulation of the rib, there will be some slight morphological differences, where you'd be able to tell what animal it came from.

((WN)) Did the Neanderthals use reindeer bones for some other purposes?

((Naomi Martisius)) As far as we know, they weren't used for specific purposes. I mentioned the retouchers before: bones just used to sharpen a lithic edge. I'm sure there were lots and lots reindeer rib — not ribs — but reindeer leg bones used to resharpen stone tools. But those probably weren't selected for a specific purpose. That was just 'cause it was there to use.

((WN)) Does this imply Neanderthals were inclined [towards] using bones from one species or the other?

((Naomi Martisius)) So, I think there would need to be more research to say something like that. But in my opinion, I don't think so. I think it has more to do with the size of the animal, in their environment, at that time, these large bovids were the larger animals on the landscape. So I think that's why they used those ribs, as opposed to the reindeer, or something else that was more abundant. Yeah.

Lissoir (AP-4209) from Abri Peyrony. The top row displays the complete spectrum in the m/z range 1000 – 3500. The bottom row displays a close-up view of the m/z range around peptide marker P1 (1105 m/z) and A (1208 m/z for Bos sp./Bison sp.) (Image: Naomi L. Martisius, Frido Welker, Tamara Dogandžić, Mark N. Grote, William Rendu, Virginie Sinet-Mathiot, Arndt Wilcke, Shannon J. P. McPherron, Marie Soressi & Teresa E. Steele)

((WN)) How did you make sure this available data is not survivor's bias?

((Naomi Martisius)) Yeah. Okay. So I suppose it could be, an issue of preservation: the only ones that happen to be preserved were the larger bovid bones.

I suppose that could be an issue. But we did look at all of the fauna from the site and specifically looked at all the ribs from the site as well. And there are plenty of rib fragments from reindeer, or from smaller species and those do not seem to be preserved any less frequently than the large bovid ribs. So I don't think that is an issue at the site.

((WN)) ZooMS usually involve drilling the artefacts. How did your team come to the idea that you would rather use the collagen stuck to the walls of the containers?

((Naomi Martisius)) The inspiration for the analysis was really from another team that did it first. I was at a conference in 2017, and I saw that another team had done this. And I talked to my colleagues, and we decided that we would try this on our bone tools too.

((WN)) For how long were these bone tools exposed to the plastic containers?

((Naomi Martisius)) It was various amounts of time depending, well, depending on a number of things, how long the artefacts had been found; what they had been curated in before — because not all of them were curated in something plastic beforehand, but most of the Abri Peyrony ones were sitting in a plastic box for about five years. One of them had been found more recently, and it was only in its plastic box for about two months. And then, we tested the Pech[-de-l’Azé] one after it had been in a plastic bag for about five months.

Bone tools that were studied in the other research focusing on Iroquoian bone tools. (Image: Krista McGrath, Keri Rowsell, Christian Gates St-Pierre, Andrew Tedder, George Foody, Carolynne Roberts, Camilla Speller & Matthew Collins)

((WN)) Has this type of non-destructive ZooMS been used for studying bones and artefacts dating back millennia?

((Naomi Martisius)) Not back millennia. I mentioned this other team, who did it first, and they did it non-destructively on Iroquoian bone tools: so that would be a couple hundred years old. But so far this particular type of non-destructive ZooMS hadn't been done on anything older.

((WN)) How did the team make sure the samples gathered from the walls of these containers were not contaminated?

((Naomi Martisius)) So. As I mentioned before, validating our results and ruling out contamination: it was a big issue for us. And so we took lots and lots of different measures to do this. And in the paper, we mentioned seven different ways, how we did this. When you run the ZooMS samples, you always leave a sample blank. So, one where you don't have any collagen in it. If you get results at the end, and there is some sort of collagen, then you know your samples are all contaminated. But that one was blank, so that was good. We also tested the empty boxes — similar boxes that never held any archæoological specimens before — those came back empty of any collagen as well. Next, we tested the washing water that artefacts — when we excavate, they're covered in dirt, most of the time. So we always wash them to get this dirt off. And, especially for the teeny tiny bone fragments, those get washed together, because they're all in a bag together; they're really teeny tiny, less than two centimetres; small pieces. So those get washed together in the little water bath. And then we tested that water to see if any collagen was contaminating the water, or if there could be any chance of cross-contamination during this washing process. So then, the third way was — well, when we were doing the identifications, all the IDs came back as one animal. If it was contaminated you would have IDs that didn't make sense, you know? Like proteins popping up from, you know, not just these large bovids, but also reindeer, something else in there. Then, the next way was to look to see if there were any peptides from hæmoglobin, or from keratin. And there wasn't anything like that, so we ruled out any contamination from the skins that may have been worked by these tools. And then, two more ways that we did. Since we didn't want to destroy these objects, we couldn't confirm our results destructively. So we got a sample from the other fauna at the site. Most of those we had good morphological identifications on, identifications based on morphology; we can say, "yes this piece is a reindeer; we know that. 100% certainty." And we also did destructive ZooMS as well as non-destructive ZooMS, and — that didn't always work; sometimes we didn't get results at all; but when we did get positive results, for the most part it was all confirming each other. And then, the last way that we ruled out contamination was, we looked at the deamidation calculations of the collagen, and it showed that the collagen was degraded and therefore ancient. So, then we were able to rule out modern contaminants in there as well.

((WN)) Do we know which animals that Neanderthals used for making leather?

((Naomi Martisius)) No. Not at all. We don't know that at all.

((WN)) Is it possible the bones [which] were from different locations gave different results because of the contamination? As you mentioned one of the sites didn't give any positive results. Could it be possible because it was contaminated?

((Naomi Martisius)) No, if it was contaminated, then we would have some other results. We just, we didn't have any results. That wouldn't be related to contamination.

((WN)) How did you make sure that everything was pointing back to the same result, provided the number of specimens were not that much?

((Naomi Martisius)) Mm. Yeah, so sample size is always gonna be an issue in archæology. It is. So anybody who's reading the paper is gonna have to take the results, I guess, with a grain of salt. Because when you start adding more and more samples, maybe the results will start to change. But just based on the samples that we have, they were all one thing and I mean, I think that's fairly good results for a small sample size.

((WN)) In your blog post about this research, you had mentioned Neanderthals "did not necessarily manufacture bones into specific objects". What could be the reason? And can you please explain that?

((Naomi Martisius)) Yeah, so I think when I said that in the blog post, I was thinking about those retouchers that I mentioned earlier. So they are just the bones that you'd pick up and use to sharpen a stone tool. So those bones don't need to be shaped into any particular object. Those bones are just used the way they are to do a very particular task. And for the most part, Neandertals — they didn't really make many other bone tools. And that's what we find in the archæoological record: for most of the time Neandertals were alive, hardly any bone tools [are] found from their archæoological sites. And the reason for that — lots of people have different reasons for this. Some people say "oh it's because Neandertals couldn't make bone tools". But now we know with these lissoirs that they [could] — they did shape them into somehting to use them. Also, at very very few sites some of the latest Neandertals that ever lived did make some other bone tools. So they definitely were able to make bone tools. But why they didn't make them all the time: that's something harder to get at. Maybe they just didn't need them for their specific purposes.

((WN)) What does this tell us about their behaviour?

((Naomi Martisius)) Wait; what specifically?

((WN)) The process that Neanderthals follow for making tools from bones — what does that tell us about the behaviour?

((Naomi Martisius)) So do you specifically mean these ones? The lissoirs from this study?

((WN)) [Nods].

((Naomi Martisius)) Okay. Well, it tells me that they knew what they were doing. They had a clear idea about what type of bone in a certain type of animal would work for a certain purpose. So they obviously had a lot of forethought. And they really understood the raw material properties of the particular tools that they were using.

((WN)) In your career, you had previously worked on a study which stated Neanderthals used sophisticated tools made of bone before humans ever did. Could you tell us more about it?

((Naomi Martisius)) Yeah, so I believe you're referring to the 2013 study from PNAS. These are the same bone tools. It's just, that paper described the discovery of these tools, and this current paper is describing one particular aspect: the raw material selection of these tools. I guess I just want to comment on that question a little bit. It's not [just] that they made these tools — they made them before humans were making them in Europe; because Neandertals were in Europe before humans migrated into Europe. So that was the main thing about that.

((WN)) So you used the same artefacts for that research as well?

((Naomi Martisius)) Yes. The same artefacts. And then, I found an additional one during my dissertation studies.

((WN)) So what are the inferences of this study?

((Naomi Martisius)) Well, I think I probably said it a couple times now: Neandertals were definitely selective in their raw material for making these bone tools; and this selection really shows that they had knowledge of the raw material properties of these ribs and knew what they wanted for their particular tasks.

A suspected Neanderthals jewellery. (Image: Davorka Radovčić, Ankica Oros Sršen, Jakov Radovčić, David W. Frayer)

((WN)) Are we aware of some other bone tools used for some other purposes by Neanderthals?

((Naomi Martisius)) Well I mentioned the retouchers before. Those are very very common at Neandertal sites. So they're not shaped pieces of bone, they're just bone fragments and then you can see by little impact marks on these bones that they were used to sharpen lithic tools. And then, in just a few sites in southwest France — the technology I guess we can say, is Châtelperronian. So it would be the very latest latest Neandertals that lived in Europe. They were making other bone tools then, right before they went extinct. So they made awls, elongated pointed objects likely for piercing, possibly, animal skins. They also made some pendants made out of animal teeth, possibly worn as jewellery or something like that. But that was very very rare, only found at a very small number of sites, and even that is controversial. Not everyone actually believes that Neandertals made those. Yeah; there's been debate about that.

((WN)) Are there any downsides of using a non-destructive ZooMS procedure?

((Naomi Martisius)) So, I would say the main downside would be that your results might be ambiguous, or maybe you don't even get results at all. Your results are definitely going to be better using the destructive methods.

((WN)) What does the success of this study mean for the future of archæology, especially for using non-destructive ZooMS procedure?

((Naomi Martisius)) Oh, I think a lot of researchers are probably gonna be pretty excited about this. Because now, there's the possibility to test all sorts of precious artefacts that nobody ever wanted to sample before. And so now we can at least try to sample these artefacts and see if we can get some results for that.

((WN)) Are there any future plans to explore more about the preferences of Neanderthals from other sites, or maybe some other peculiar habits they had?

((Naomi Martisius)) So, if you're speaking of bone tools specifically, I would say: I don't have any specific plans at this moment, but I would love to keep doing that, if there are more bone tools to study in this way. I would love to do a study on the retouchers that I mentioned several times now, to see if there was some sort of preference with those. There are plenty of other researchers out there, working on raw material selection in Neandertals, but on stone. So for the most part, what we find in the archæoological record, especially in Neandertal times, is a bunch of stone tools. And so there's actually been lots and lots of research on what Neandertals were using for their stone tools.

((WN)) What lies ahead in this field of study?

((Naomi Martisius)) I think there needs to be a lot more experimental work done. If you look at all of our results, including the fauna from the two sites, a lot of the pieces didn't have any positive results at all. We had a lot of empty spectra. So, trying to figure out how this actually works, I guess [laughs], that's a big thing. In what circumstances, and using which plastics — because there are different types of plastics, and maybe certain plastics pull the collagen out of the bone better and stick to the plastic better. So there's all sorts of different experimental things that can be done. Working on the plastic; various lengths of time; touching the plastic; if it's rubbing on plastic in a particular way. Yeah, there's various things that can be done with that.

Bacho Kiro cave in Bulgaria. (Image: Спасимир)

((WN)) What are the other researches you are already working on?

((Naomi Martisius)) I guess the main thing that I'm working on right now, I actually just started as a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany; although I'm in California right now. But I will get over to Leipzig as soon as the world starts opening up again. But my main reason for being hired by them to work in Leipzig is to study the bone artefacts from a site called Bacho Kiro in Bulgaria. And I was actually in Bulgaria for five months, starting in October, studying the bone artefacts there as well as animal teeth pendants. And then I went back to California because I was in Bulgaria on a Fulbright fellowship that ended; but then, I'm gonna try to get back to Europe to continue that study. So that's the main thing I've been working on, I would say.

((WN)) What was your role at the UC Davis?

((Naomi Martisius)) So, for the past: well, starting in 2012 — I guess it was — 2012 to 2019, I was a graduate student. I obtained my PhD last year, and I'm still an associate researcher for UC Davis. So I still have all my connections there; and I will retain the status of associate researcher for the next couple years.

((WN)) [Those] were all the questions I had for you. Is there anything you would like to add?

((Naomi Martisius)) Oh! Is there anything else? You know, as I was talking, I was thinking, "oh I should have said this, and that, and the other thing", but now when you ask me that I can't remember. [laughs] I think the main thing I wanted to get across, and maybe I said it a couple times during this talk: Just thinking about Neandertals: When Neandertals were living — mostly in Europe, also in the Near East — for a couple hundred thousand years, during this whole time period, they hardly used bone tools. Or if they did, it was very opportunistically. They only made a handful of shaped bone tools for specific purposes. And when they did do that, they were able to do it in a very professional way. They knew what they were doing; it wasn't just like "oh let's just try this thing and see what happens", right? So, I guess the main thing I would like to impart, to the general public, is: often, in popular media, whatever, Neandertals kind of get a bad rap as these, I don't know, subhuman type of ancient people, but they were very very sophisticated in many many ways. And with these bone tools, that's just one of the ways.

A candid shot during interview with Dr Naomi Martisius (Image: acagastya)

((WN)) Thank you for agreeing for this discussion. It was a great pleasure discussing this with you.

((Naomi Martisius)) Yeah! Thank you. I enjoyed it as well.

((WN)) Okay. Goodbye. Have a good night.

((Naomi Martisius)) Okay you too. Have a good day.


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