Sunday, May 15, 2016
A World from Dust (Plus): Neanderthal Chemists
In Chapter 11 of A World from Dust, I mention the evidence of chemistry at Pinnacle Point, where early humans used fire to cook food and make paint. Now there's evidence that Neanderthals were chemists, too. This recent study analyzes the black manganese oxide rocks found in France where Neanderthals once lived. Earlier scientists assumed these were used for their color as something like body paint. Heyes et al. point out that it's a lot easier to find other black rocks for this purpose, so the Neanderthals must have had another reason for collecting this special mineral.
Heyes et al. show that manganese oxide can spark flames (as mentioned in Chapter 7), and find evidence of combusted manganese in the Neanderthal fire pits. The Neanderthals collected this for its chemistry as a firestarter, not as a mere pigment. Personally, I didn't know that manganese had this use before researching A World from Dust, which means that I didn't know as much about this element as my Neanderthal ancestors. Guess there's always something to learn.