Friday, 15 November 2013

Projectile weapons invented almost 280,000 years ago, by pre-modern humans

Study suggests Ethiopian Rift stone points were used as hafted javelin tips.

The invention of projectile weaponry was clearly an important advance for early humans, enabling large mammals or enemies to be killed or wounded at a distance, without the dangers of a confrontation at close quarters.

The earliest humans probably hunted to an extent, but unequivocal evidence for the hunting of large mammals does not appear in the archaeological record until the Middle Pleistocene. In 1995, four wooden spears were discovered at an open cast mine near the town of Schöningen in Germany. The 400,000-year-old weapons were found with the carcasses of the horses they had been used to kill: the earliest-known association of hunting weapon with quarry. Each spear was over 2 m (6 ft. 6 in.) long, sharpened at both ends, and scraped smooth with stone tools (Thieme, 1997). However, these were unlikely to have been projectile weapons. They are closer in thickness to ethnographically-recorded thrusting spears rather than throwing spears, and if thrown would have had a killing radius of less than 8 m (26 ft.) (Shea, 2006).

Even earlier are the 500,000-year-old stone points from the site of Kathu Pan 1 (KP 1) in South Africa. Some exhibit fractures to their ends, bases and edges that are consistent with a short-ranged weapon striking a target – but not with use for cutting or scraping. The points are shaped near the base in a way that suggests that they were hafted to wooden spears. Experiments with replicas of the KP 1 points, made from similar raw materials, suggest that they made effective spear tips. This makes them the earliest-known multi-component tools; however, they were thrusting spears rather than projectile weapons (Wilkins, et al., 2012).

Throwing spears or javelins were once thought to be a technology unique to modern humans. However, a newly-published study suggests that they predate the emergence of Homo sapiens by 80,000 years. The Gademotta Formation is an archaeological site located on the flanks of an ancient volcanic caldera in the Ethiopian Rift. Investigations since 2010 have yielded over two hundred intact or fragmentary stone points, nearly all of which made from locally-available obsidian. Obsidian is a naturally-occurring volcanic glass that is well-suited to the production of implements with a sharp cutting edge. Argon-argon dating suggests that the oldest of the artefacts are 279,000 years old. Many of the points were found to bear fracture patterns on their tips consistent with impact damage arising from their use as hafted javelin tips, rather than as thrusting weapons (Sahle, et al., 2013).

The pre-modern humans living in Africa at this time are commonly referred to as Homo heidelbergensis. It is commonly supposed that they lacked the cognitive abilities of modern humans (Klein & Edgar, 2002), but the emerging view is that the sophistication of Middle Pleistocene humans has been severely underestimated. The Gademotta projectile tips are an important piece of evidence in this new picture.


1. Thieme, H., Lower Paleolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 385, 807-810 (1997).

2. Shea, J., The origins of lithic projectile point technology: evidence from Africa, the Levant, and Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 33, 823-846 (2006).

3. Wilkins, J., Schoville, B., Brown, K. & Chazan, M., Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology. Science 338, 942-946 (2012).

4. Sahle, Y. et al., Earliest Stone-Tipped Projectiles from the Ethiopian Rift Date to.279,000 Years Ago. PLoS One 8 (11) (2013).

5. Klein, R. & Edgar, B., The Dawn of Human Culture (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY, 2002).

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