Fire is useful for shaping hardwood.
Fire is useful for shaping hardwood. Public domain

In spring 2012, construction workers in Grosseto in central Italy, stumbled on a site used by Neanderthals some 170,000 years ago. A team of archaeologists led by Biancamaria Aranguren from Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism excavated the site, including the bones of a straight-tusked elephant and a set of items that seem to have no business surviving so long—58 wooden sticks that had been used as tools.

The sticks range from less than six inches to about three feet long, and most were made of hard local boxwood. They are rounded on one side and pointed on the other, with points that appear to have been shaped into handles. The researchers believe that they were probably used as “digging sticks,” a common hunter-gatherer tool for digging up plants and hunting burrowing animals. Wood was probably as widely used by Neanderthals, like stone and bone, but is rarely preserved in the archaeological record

The business end of a 170,000-year-old tool.
The business end of a 170,000-year-old tool. PNAS

Some of the sticks appear to have been charred, an indication that fire was used to help scrape off the bark and shape the tools—an innovation that Neanderthals were thought to have figured out tens of thousands of years later. To confirm this, Aranguren and her team recreated the sticks using stone tools and fire, and got similar results. Their study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Because foraging has often been mostly a female-led activity in hunter-gatherer societies, researchers believe that the tools are an indication that the site was used by women. “The discovery of the digging sticks at Poggetti Vecchi offers the opportunity to distinguish probably the active presence of women,” Aranguren told Newsweek, “something that rarely happens in prehistoric sites.”