Modern hunter-gatherers used "digging sticks," crafted from wood, to search for edible roots and tubers, as well as to hunt. It's a tradition that stretches back at least 171,000 years, according to a new PNAS study. Digging in Italy, scientists have uncovered 58 wooden tools—including fragments of digging sticks carved by stone tools, with a rounded and pointed end and some more than 3 feet long—believed to have been crafted by Neanderthals in the region of Poggetti Vecchi in Tuscany during the mid-Pleistocene period, reports Newsweek. Their link to modern society is only one cool element of the discovery, though. The boxwood sticks—some of which appear to have been deliberately burned—present the earliest evidence of fire use by Neanderthals, per a release.
Researchers say burning the hard wood would've softened it, making it easier to shape, and helped to remove stubborn bark. Indeed, researchers who tried to replicate the digging sticks say they were unable to shape boxwood without charring it first, reports Ars Technica. Because women primarily use digging sticks in modern hunter-gatherer groups, lead researcher Biancamaria Aranguren says the discovery also suggests "the active presence of women, something that rarely happens in prehistoric sites." She tells Newsweek that hot springs in the area, which preserved the digging sticks for almost 200,000 years, might've actually been what drew both male and female Neanderthals to the spot as they fostered "rich plant and animal resources" at a time when the region was growing colder. (Read how a bit of cave dirt has changed archaeology.)