The use of long range weapons by modern humans in Africa dates back at least 90,000 years, according to a new study of impact marks made by projectile spears on the bones of ancient prey.
The moment when the first early human hurled a stone-tipped spear at his prey, rather thrusting at it, has been long debated by archaeologists. Indirect evidence, such as impact fractures on stone points, suggests to some that early humans used projectile spears as early as 500,000 years ago in Africa, but this is widely disputed.
Australian archaeologist Corey O’Driscoll has now found a new method of determining how prehistoric hunters made their kills. With colleagues from the University of Queensland, he made reproductions of flint spear and arrow points attached to wooden shafts and threw or fired them at lamb and cow carcasses. After defleshing the carcasses, he examined the wounds on the bones and compared them to cut marks on butchered animal bones. He found “quite a difference between the butchering marks and projectile impact marks.”
The main difference was the presence of microscopic bits of embedded flint in many of the projectile impact marks, caused by the high velocity of impact. None of the butchering marks contained such fragments.
The findings led O’Driscoll to take a fresh look at 3 bone specimens from large unidentified mammals found in one of the oldest known modern human refuges – Pinnacle Point Cave in South Africa. Projectile impact marks were identified on all 3 bones.
Two of the bones dated to between 91,000 and 98,000 years ago, making them the oldest direct evidence of the use of projectile weapons. The third bone dated even earlier, between 153,000 and 174,000 years ago, but because only a “single grain” of flint was embedded in it, the evidence is open to question.
The development of the projectile spear went on to give modern humans the competitive edge over the Neanderthals in colonising the planet.
It is likely that climate change made the Neanderthals an endangered species in Europe long before modern humans arrived on the scene. Although the short, stocky Neanderthals were biologically adapted to deal with rapid fluctuations in climate, a spell of extreme cold in Europe around 50,000 years ago caused ecological changes which they were slower to adapt to. As the planet’s fresh water became locked in dense ice sheets, the climate dried out and the Neanderthals’ dense woodland hunting grounds, ideal for ambushing prey with thrusting spears, began to be replaced with open grasslands.
When longer-limbed modern humans arrived in Europe from around 40,000 years ago, they were better suited to exploit the herds that roamed these open plains by hunting them with projectile spears – later enhanced with detachable throwing handles called Atlatls to achieve greater velocity. Modern humans went on to colonise the whole of Europe and Eurasia in less than 15,000 years, a feat not matched by the Neanderthals in their 250,000 year presence on the continent.
As well as out-hunting them with the aid of projectile spears, there is evidence to suggest that modern humans may have used the weapons against the Neanderthals in acts of inter-species aggression.
The 50,000 year-old remains of a 40 to 50 year-old male Neanderthal, found in a cave in northeastern Iraq’s Zagros Mountains, showed he had sustained a sharp, deep slice to one of his ribs. Although he seems to have survived the attack, he died within weeks, perhaps from associated lung damage. Anthropologists found that the level of kinetic energy that created the puncture wound and its 45 degrees downward angle were consistent with the ballistic trajectory of a projectile spear – assuming that the 5 ft 6 ins tall Neanderthal was standing at the time.