Identifying Palaeolithic birch tar production techniques: challenges from an experimental biomolecular approach

Paul R.B. Kozowyk*, Liliana I. Baron, Geeske H.J. Langejans

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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The intentional production of birch bark tar by European Neanderthals as early as 190,000 years ago plays an important role in discussions about the technological and behavioural complexity of Pleistocene hominins. However, research is hampered because it is currently unknown how Neanderthals were producing birch tar. There are several different techniques that could have been employed, but these differ in their apparent production complexity, time and resource efficiency. Identifying production processes in the archaeological record is therefore paramount for furthering research on the technical behavioural repertoire. Organic biomarkers, identified with Gas Chromatograph–Mass Spectrometry (GC–MS), have been used to identify possible production processes during the Neolithic. Here we test whether these biomarkers can also distinguish Palaeolithic (aceramic) tar production methods. We produced tar using five different methods and analysed their biomolecular composition with GC–MS. Our results show that the biomarkers used to distinguish Neolithic tar production strategies using ceramic technology cannot be reliably used to identify tar production processes using aceramic Palaeolithic techniques. More experimentation is required to produce a larger reference library of different tars for future comparisons. To achieve this, complete GC–MS datasets must also be made publicly available, as we have done with our data.

Original languageEnglish
Article number14727
Number of pages11
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2023


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