Neanderthals – that human subspecies we love to blame for everything from our addictions and depression to professional wrestling – may have been smarter than we give them credit for. New evidence suggests that they used chemicals to start their fires rather than waiting for lightning or a friendly, sharing homo sapien.

The evidence comes from the Netherlands where researchers from Leiden University and Delft University of Technology found high concentrations of manganese dioxide in Neanderthal caves in southwestern France. It had previously been assumed that this black ore was used for cave art and body painting. That made sense but didn’t explain why the caves were also filled with ash and charcoal, which would also make great paints for walls and faces. Did the manganese dioxide serve a different purpose?

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Did Neanderthals use manganese dioxide for something other than body painting?

That’s the question the scientists set out to answer. In their paper in the journal Scientific Reports, the scientists describe finding blocks of manganese dioxide at a Neanderthal site that were scratched as if someone was scraping them to obtain a pile of powder. They rubbed the powder on pieces of wood and discovered that it lowered the temperature required for ignition from 662°F (350°C) to 482°F (250°C). While that process in itself would not ignite the wood, it would make it easier to light – even that notoriously impossible to light green wood.

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Blocks of manganese dioxide both unmodified (b,d) and with abrasion marks (a,c).

Light with what? It’s known that Neanderthals used stone tools for various purposes, including making jewelry and carving wood. Stone hitting stone creates sparks and carving wood creates wood shavings that dry out quickly. The researchers' experiments showed it's possible that a stray spark hit some dry shavings near a pile of manganese dioxide next to a stack of twigs and Neanderthal history was made – not to mention cooked food too.

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Combustion Experiments with Manganese Dioxide MD4 and Wood Mixtures (a) showing small red flames and volatile emission and (b) the glowing fire combustion phase.

Are there enough connected dots to prove Neanderthals used manganese dioxide to start fires? Archaeologist Dr. Peter Heyes, who led the research, says it definitely proves that they were smarter than we give them credit for.

Finding evidence to support a view on Neanderthal management of wood fuel resources is a very remote possibility. It could nevertheless have been an important aspect of subsistence. If Neanderthals could devote time and resources to collecting manganese dioxide for fire making, it is perhaps not unreasonable to assume they could manage wood fuel resources effectively.

It beats shivering in a dark cave waiting for lightning so you can start a fire and see to paint the lines on your face straight.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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