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Neanderthal Superglue

  • Posted 01.10.13
  • NOVA

Neanderthals devised what is thought to be the world’s first known industrial process. In this video, watch as NOVA attempts to recreate the Neanderthal technique of pitch extraction through a complex process known as dry distillation.

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Launch Video Running Time: 02:58

Transcript

Decoding Neanderthals

PBS Airdate: January 9, 2013

NARRATOR: This is the world's oldest-known synthetic material. It makes Neanderthals, and not us, the inventors of perhaps the first industrial process. But how could an allegedly primitive species have done this?

To find out more, Wil Roebroeks decides to mount an experiment with a colleague, Friedrich Palmer. They will try to replicate the Neanderthal technique of pitch extraction, a complex process called "dry distillation."

Crucially, they'll use only the materials available to Neanderthals 250,000 years ago: an upturned animal skull to catch the pitch; a small stone on which the pitch would condense; some rolls of birch bark, the source of the pitch; and a layer of ash to exclude oxygen and prevent the bark from burning.

Roebroeks and Palmer need to heat the bark to 400 degrees centigrade. Any less, and it won't produce pitch; any more, and it will simply burn.

After eight hours, any pitch should have condensed on the stone within the skull. Today, Roebroeks and Palmer manage to extract only a tiny smear of pitch. They are on the right track, but it isn't nearly enough to glue a spearhead to a shaft, as the Neanderthals did.

FRIEDRICH PALMER: It's sticky.

WIL ROEBROEKS: It's not much. It's very small quantities.

NARRATOR: It seems this experiment is on too small a scale to produce enough pitch. Neanderthals must have figured out how to scale up the technique in a way we haven't yet reproduced.

However they managed it, the Neanderthals had evidently mastered a complex thermal process.

Credits

EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS
Alison Turner
Tom Brisley
DIRECTED BY
Nick Clarke Powell
PRODUCED BY
Johanna Woolford Gibbon
Ben Harding
CONSULTANT
Matthew Barrett
EDITED BY
Sebastian Duthy
CAMERA
Chris Openshaw
Richard Numeroff
SOUND RECORDISTS
Steve Theroux
Steve Roseboom
Hayden Jackson
Grant Lawson
NARRATED BY
Corey Johnson
ASSISTANT CAMERA
Dave Prevost
MUSIC
David Hamill
Audio Network
Extreme
ANIMATION
Bandito VFX
Pixeldust Studios
PRODUCTION MANAGER
Stephanie Mavropoulos
ONLINE EDITOR
Chris Clark
COLORIST
Ross Baker
AUDIO MIX
Danny Finn
SOUND EDITOR
Graham Kirkman
RESEARCH
Rosie Waldron
Camila Ruz
PRODUCTION COORDINATOR
Sarah Kinsella
ARCHIVAL MATERIAL
CanStockPhoto
Corbis
Didier Descouens, Museum of Toulouse
Getty Images
iStockPhoto
Jiri Hochman
Max Planck Institute
Mesa Verde National Park
Plos-One
Pond5
Joao Zilhao
Science Photo Library
Sebastian Duthy
Shutterstock
Tomislav Kranjcic
Università di Firenze
SPECIAL THANKS
Klara Parmova
Jontxu Portusiano Hastalamedula
NOVA SERIES GRAPHICS
yU + co.
NOVA THEME MUSIC
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.
ADDITIONAL NOVA THEME MUSIC
Ray Loring
Rob Morsberger
POST PRODUCTION ONLINE EDITOR
Spencer Gentry
CLOSED CAPTIONING
The Caption Center
MARKETING AND PUBLICITY
Karen Laverty
PUBLICITY
Eileen Campion
Victoria Louie
SENIOR RESEARCHER
Kate Becker
NOVA ADMINISTRATOR
Kristen Sommerhalter
PRODUCTION COORDINATOR
Linda Callahan
PARALEGAL
Sarah Erlandson
TALENT RELATIONS
Scott Kardel, Esq.
Janice Flood
LEGAL COUNSEL
Susan Rosen
DIRECTOR OF EDUCATION
Rachel Connolly
DIGITAL PROJECTS MANAGER
Kristine Allington
SENIOR DIGITAL EDITOR
Tim De Chant
DIRECTOR OF NEW MEDIA
Lauren Aguirre
PRODUCTION MANAGER
Stephanie Mills
POST PRODUCTION ASSISTANT
Brittany Flynn
POST PRODUCTION EDITOR
Rebecca Nieto
POST PRODUCTION MANAGER
Nathan Gunner
COMPLIANCE MANAGER
Linzy Emery
BUSINESS MANAGER
Elizabeth Benjes
DEVELOPMENT PRODUCER
David Condon
PROJECT DIRECTOR
Pamela Rosenstein
COORDINATING PRODUCER
Laurie Cahalane
SENIOR SCIENCE EDITOR
Evan Hadingham
SENIOR PRODUCERS
Julia Cort
Chris Schmidt
SENIOR SERIES PRODUCER
Melanie Wallace
MANAGING DIRECTOR
Alan Ritsko
SENIOR EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA Production by Arrow International Media Ltd. for WGBH

© 2013 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

Image

(Neanderthal holding pitch)
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Participants

Svante Pääbo
Max Planck Institute, Leipzig
Wil Roebroeks
Archaeologist, Leiden University

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