“This is careful, cautious work, in the excavation strategy and the analysis,” Dr. Hurcombe said. “We can make a well-reasoned guess that perishable material culture was important, but it is this kind of careful work that will push back the dates for the earliest firm evidence.” She added, “Cordage technologies are the basis for many items of material culture and this find gives us a window on the ‘missing majority’.”
Other scholars during the review process expressed an old-fashioned skepticism that Neanderthals would engage in behavior as sophisticated as the step-by-step process of making cord.
The excavated fragment of cord was likely derived from the inner bark of a conifer or evergreen tree, such as a pine or juniper. It was composed of fibers plied together: numerous fibers twisted counterclockwise, in an “S-twist,” to make yarn; and then three strands of yarn twisted in the opposite direction, clockwise with a “Z-twist,” to make cord. The twisting and retwisting produce a tensile strength.
Although the researchers were careful in speculating about the uses of this fragment, they proposed that lengths of cord could have been combined into larger structures such as bags, mats, nets, fabric, baskets, snares and even boats.
Moreover, they suggested, “the production of cordage necessitates an understanding of mathematical concepts and general numeracy.”
“Cordage production entails context sensitive operational memory to keep track of each operation,” they wrote. “As the structure becomes more complex (multiple cords twisted to form a rope, ropes interlaced to form knots), it demonstrates an ‘infinite use of finite means’ and requires a cognitive complexity similar to that required by human language.”
Dr. Hardy noted the cognitive parallels. “I can’t have a sentence without words, and I can’t have words without the individual sounds that carry meaning,” he said. “So I can’t have a rope or a cord or a bag or a net without the other steps along the way. You can’t start with the end product.” It’s a scaffolding process that scales up.