Ancient Adhesives: A window on prehistoric technological complexity

The Ancient Adhesive’s project aims to create a new computational method to study technological complexity in (pre)historic times. We do this with 29 partners mainly from museums and universities, and with funding from the European Research Counsel. The project’s models are initially applied to measure the complexity of prehistoric glue technology. They can be adapted to analyse and compare different technologies, for example copper smelting and pottery production.

Glue: behavioural and technological complexity

To study the evolution of Neandertal and modern human cognitive capacities, certain find categories are taken to reflect behavioural and thus cognitive complexity. Among these are art objects, pigments, personal ornaments and complex technology, e.g. composite tools and glues. Of these technology is best-suited to trace changing behavioural complexity, because 1) it is the least vulnerable to differential preservation, and 2) technological behaviours are present throughout the history of our genus. Adhesives are the oldest examples of highly complex technology. They are also known earlier from Neandertal than from modern human contexts. Understanding their technological complexity is thus essential to resolve debates on differences in cognitive complexity of both species. However, currently, there is no agreed-upon method to measure technological complexity.

AncientAdhesives resolves this problem by employing an automated formal method to model and compare the technological complexity of adhesive technologies. The project focuses on Neandertal and modern human adhesives. Adhesive finds are the earliest possible evidence for the use of complex technologies, and adhesives were used by both Neandertals and early modern humans. The project will therefore contribute to the long-standing debate on their cognitive and behavioural differences and similarities.

Dr. Geeske Langejans


Sebastian Fajardo Bernal

Complexity measures

The aim of AncientAdhesives is to create the first reliable method to compare the complexity of Neandertal and modern human technologies. This is achieved through three main objectives:

1.      Collate the first comprehensive body of knowledge on adhesives, including ethnography, archaeology and
         (experimental) material properties (e.g. preservation, production).

2.      Develop a new archaeological methodology by modifying industrial process modelling for archaeological applications. 
         This methodology can be applied universally.

3.      Evaluate the development of adhesive technological complexity through time and across species using a range of
         explicit complexity measures.

By analysing adhesives, it is possible to measure technological complexity, to identify idiosyncratic behaviours and to track adoption and loss of complex technological know-how. This represents a step-change in debates about the development of behavioural complexity and differences/similarities between Neanderthals and modern humans.

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Behind the scenes during a tar production experiment (NTR-Kennis van Nu)


Kozowyk, P.R.B., M. Soressi, D. Pomstra, and G.H.J. Langejans, Experimental methods for the alaeolithic dry distillation of birch bark: implications for the origin and development of Neandertal adhesive technology. Nature Scientific Reports, 2017. 7(1): p. 8033.

 Kozowyk, P.R.B., J.A. Poulis, and G.H.J. Langejans, Laboratory strength testing of pine wood and birch bark adhesives: A first study of the material properties of pitch. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 2017. 13: p. 49-59.

Kozowyk, P.R.B., G.H.J. Langejans, and J.A. Poulis, Lap Shear and Impact Testing of Ochre and Beeswax in Experimental Middle Stone Age Compound Adhesives. PLoS ONE, 2016. 11(3): p. e0150436.