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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Oct 29;116(44):22081-22087. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1907828116. Epub 2019 Oct 21.

Middle Paleolithic complex technology and a Neandertal tar-backed tool from the Dutch North Sea.

Author information

Stichting STONE/Foundation for Stone Age Research in The Netherlands, 9741 KW Groningen, The Netherlands;
Faculty of Archeology, Leiden University, 2333 CC Leiden, The Netherlands;
Faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering, Delft University of Technology, 2628 CD Delft, The Netherlands;
Palaeo-Research Institute, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg 2092, South Africa.
Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Delft University of Technology, 2628 CN Delft, The Netherlands.
Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, 1071 ZC Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Groningen, 9747 AG Groningen, The Netherlands.
Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University, 3584 CB Utrecht, The Netherlands.
Private address, 2675 WC Honselersdijk, The Netherlands.
Cultural Heritage Agency of The Netherlands, 3811 MG Amersfoort, The Netherlands.
Faculty of Archeology, Leiden University, 2333 CC Leiden, The Netherlands.
National Museum of Antiquities, 2301 EC Leiden, The Netherlands.
Archeological Drawings and Analyses, 9751 SC Haren, The Netherlands.


We report the discovery of a 50,000-y-old birch tar-hafted flint tool found off the present-day coastline of The Netherlands. The production of adhesives and multicomponent tools is considered complex technology and has a prominent place in discussions about the evolution of human behavior. This find provides evidence on the technological capabilities of Neandertals and illuminates the currently debated conditions under which these technologies could be maintained. 14C-accelerator mass spectrometry dating and the geological provenance of the artifact firmly associates it with a host of Middle Paleolithic stone tools and a Neandertal fossil. The find was analyzed using pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, X-ray micro-computed tomography, and optical light microscopy. The object is a piece of birch tar, encompassing one-third of a flint flake. This find is from northwestern Europe and complements a small set of well-dated and chemically identified adhesives from Middle Paleolithic/Middle Stone Age contexts. Together with data from experiments and other Middle Paleolithic adhesives, it demonstrates that Neandertals mastered complex adhesive production strategies and composite tool use at the northern edge of their range. Thus, a large population size is not a necessary condition for complex behavior and technology. The mitigation of ecological risk, as demonstrated by the challenging conditions during Marine Isotope Stage 4 and 3, provides a better explanation for the transmission and maintenance of technological complexity.


Late Pleistocene; adhesive; birch bark tar; hafting; risk mitigation

[Available on 2020-04-21]

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

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