An archaeological dig site in Tuscany, Italy has revealed that Neanderthals who lived in the region over 170,000 years ago used fire to fashion wooden tools. This is the earliest recorded instance of Neanderthals using fire to craft tools and also the first instance of women using fire to make tools and weapons.

The archaeological site, Poggetti Vecchi in Tuscany, has naturally preserved a number of such tools made of wood. The same site is also home to prehistoric straight-tusked elephants.

Phys.org reports that a team of researchers from several institutions in Italy were part of this find, who described in their research paper where the tools were found and what purpose they served. Their findings first appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to the report, the tools were dated back to about 171,000 years, which puts the find in the Middle Paleocene period when Neanderthals dominated the region.

Wood was a popular material used to make tools at that time. Described simply as "digging sticks", these tools are about a metre long and have a rounded off and a sharpened end. Used until today, they are popular choices for digging up tubers, worms and even for looking up small underground animals. These sturdy sticks could even double up as basic weapons.

The sticks found at Tuscany are reportedly made of boxwood — an easily available material in that part of the world. Boxwood, note the researchers, is a hard, heavy and sturdy wood.

The tips of the tools made of boxwood were found to have been charred out, possibly to remove tough and stubborn barks and also to sharpen and round off as needed. Charring is one way to soften the bark and the wood, making it easy to shape and craft as needed.

Several sticks of similar dimensions were found with the same char patterns, which indicates it was done intentionally and that it could have been a common practice for that group. Cut marks and striations along the length of the stick shows that the makers of the sticks used sharp stone cutters to get the shape right.

Neanderthal women were known to using digging sticks, notes the report, adding that it is likely they are the ones who made them. If that be the case, this is also the first found and earliest evidence of women using fire to craft tools.