Neandertal fire-making technology inferred from microwear analysis
Fire use appears to have been relatively common among Neandertals in the Middle Palaeolithic. However, the means by which Neandertals procured their fire—either through the collection of natural fire, or by producing it themselves using tools—is still a matter of debate. We present here the first direct artefactual evidence for regular, systematic fire production by Neandertals. From archaeological layers attributed to late Mousterian industries at multiple sites throughout France, primarily to the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition (MTA) technoculture (ca. 50,000 years BP), we identify using microwear analysis dozens of late Middle Palaeolithic bifacial tools that exhibit macroscopic and microscopic traces suggesting repeated percussion and/or forceful abrasion with a hard mineral material. Both the locations and nature of the polish and associated striations are comparable to those obtained experimentally by obliquely percussing fragments of pyrite (FeS2) against the flat/convex sides of a biface to make fire. The striations within these discrete use zones are always oriented roughly parallel to the longitudinal axis of the tool, allowing us to rule out taphonomic origins for these traces. We therefore suggest that the occasional use of bifaces as ‘strike-a-lights’ was a technocultural feature shared among the late Neandertals in France.