“An engineer is able to build a high-quality product using off-the-shelf components and integrating them under time and budget constraints. The engineer is often faced with ill-defined problems and partial solutions, and has to rely on empirical methods to evaluate solutions.” (1)
Birch tar or “Neanderthal glue” refers to an adhesive created by dry distillation of birch bark. It is not particularly impressive on its own and could even be created by accident (2). What is most notable is that Neanderthals produced large quantities of high-quality tar for use in everyday tools even with very small group sizes and in the absence of a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle (3). This would have required them to use a very efficient process:
“[Researchers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands] tried to recreate tool’s manufacture, collecting strips of birch bark, mounding clay over them, and building a fire on top to heat the bark inside to 300°C–400°C for hours. The procedure was hot enough to produce thick tar, as the resinous bark disintegrated. By comparing the chemical composition of the modern tar and its impurities to the ancient tar, Langejans and her team found that the Neanderthals likely used the same procedure.” (4)
Birch tar can only be created in a restricted temperature range (5). When all of these facts are considered together, they suggest that Neanderthals engaged in a process of trial and error to arrive at the most efficient production method (6). This implies an understanding of cause and effect relationships. More to the point, it satisfies the definition of engineering that we learned in [redacted]: “The systematic application of scientific knowledge in creating and building cost-effective solutions to practical problems.” -[redacted]
Expert opinion on Neanderthal behavioral complexity and intelligence tends to be polarized. The skeptics (as in reference 2) tend to be more conservative when drawing implications from the available data. In making this argument, I’ve assumed that I’m understanding concepts and studies in a specialty in which I have no training, and that the experts themselves have done their due diligence. I would also grant to the skeptics that particular brilliance is not proof of general intelligence, as there are many counterexamples in nature: spiderwebs, for example, are an extraordinary solution to a practical problem that is created by instinct, without any evidence of general problem-solving ability, and thus could not be described as “engineering”. However, because of the implied cause and effect understanding necessary to create an efficient process and the general complexity of the behavior, which involves creating and maintaining a controlled-temperature fire and using the product thereof to haft a range of general-purpose tools, I believe the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly against the skeptics.
- Bruegge, Bernd, and Allen H. Dutoit. Object-Oriented Software Engineering: Using UML, Patterns, and Java. Prentice Hall, 2010.
- Schmidt, Patrick, et al. “Birch Tar Production Does Not Prove Neanderthal Behavioral Complexity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 116, no. 36, Sept. 2019, pp. 17707–17711. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1073/pnas.1911137116.
- Th. Niekus, Marcel J. L., et al. “Middle Paleolithic Complex Technology and a Neandertal Tar-Backed Tool from the Dutch North Sea.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 116, no. 44, Oct. 2019, pp. 22081–22087. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1073/pnas.1907828116.
- Koch, Tabea J., and Patrick Schmidt. “The Formation Conditions of Birch Tar in Oxygen-Depleted Environments.” Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, vol. 13, no. 6, June 2021. EBSCOhost, search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eoah&AN=56268662&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Kozowyk, Paul R. B., and Johannes A. Poulis. “A New Experimental Methodology for Assessing Adhesive Properties Shows That Neandertals Used the Most Suitable Material Available.” Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 137, Dec. 2019, p. N.PAG. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2019.102664