Two cultural traditions existed among Neanderthals living in what is now northern Europe, around115,000 to 35,000 years ago, a new study has found.

The study by the University of Southampton found that Neanderthals were more culturally complex than previously acknowledged.

Dr Karen Ruebens from the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins (CAHO) examined the design of 1,300 stone tools originating from 80 Neanderthal sites in five European countries; France, Germany, Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands.

Dr Ruebens’ investigations uncovered new evidence that two separate hand axe traditions or designs existed — one in a region now spanning south—western France and Britain — the other in Germany and further to the East.

In addition, she found an area covering modern day Belgium and the Netherlands that demonstrates a transition between the two.

“In Germany and France there appears to be two separate hand axe traditions, with clear boundaries, indicating completely separate, independent developments,” she said.

“The transition zone in Belgium and Northern France indicates contact between the different groups of Neanderthals, which is generally difficult to identify but has been much talked about, especially in relation to later contacts with groups of modern humans.

“This area can be seen as a melting pot of ideas where mobile groups of Neanderthals, both from the eastern and western tradition would pass by — influencing each other’s designs and leaving behind a more varied record of bifacial tools,” she added.

The research found Neanderthals in the western region made symmetrical, triangular and heart-shaped hand axes, while during the same time period, in the eastern region, they produced asymmetrically shaped bifacial knives.

“Distinct ways of making a hand axe were passed on from generation to generation and for long enough to become visible in the archaeological record,” Dr Ruebens said.

“This indicates a strong mechanism of social learning within these two groups and says something about the stability and connectivity of the Neanderthal populations.

“Making stone tools was not merely an opportunistic task.

A lot of time, effort and tradition were invested and these tools carry a certain amount of socio—cultural information, which does not contribute directly to their function,” she said.

The study was published in Journal of Human Evolution.