It is thought that wooden spears could have come into use as early as 5 million years ago since chimpanzees and orangutans have been observed using wooden spears and because the human – chimpanzee split is dated to around 8 million years ago. Stone tipped spears however were thought to have come into use only around 300,000 years ago during the time of the Neanderthals. But a new paper in Science finds archaeological evidence from South Africa that stone spear tips were being used around 500,000 years ago.
Archeological evidence found in Germany documents that wooden spears have been used for hunting since at least 400,000 years ago. Wood does not preserve well, however, and Craig Stanford, a primatologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, has suggested that the discovery of spear use by chimpanzees probably means that early humans used wooden spears as well, perhaps, five million years ago. Neanderthals were constructing stone spear heads from as early as 300,000 BP and by 250,000 years ago, wooden spears were made with fire-hardened points.
From 200,000 BP onwards, Middle Paleolithic humans began to make complex stone blades with flaked edges which were used as spear heads. These stone heads could be fixed to the spear shaft by gum or resin or by bindings made of animal sinew, leather strips or vegetable matter. During this period, a clear difference remained between spears designed to be thrown and those designed to be used in hand-to-hand combat. By the Magdalenian period (c. 15000-9500 BC), spear-throwers similar to the later atlatl were in use.
The new paper is Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology by Jayne Wilkins, Benjamin J. Schoville, Kyle S. Brown and Michael Chazan, Science 16 November 2012: Vol. 338 no. 6109 pp. 942-946, DOI: 10.1126/science.1227608
Abstract: Hafting stone points to spears was an important advance in weaponry for early humans. Multiple lines of evidence indicate that ~500,000-year-old stone points from the archaeological site of Kathu Pan 1 (KP1), South Africa, functioned as spear tips. KP1 points exhibit fracture types diagnostic of impact. Modification near the base of some points is consistent with hafting. Experimental and metric data indicate that the points could function well as spear tips. Shape analysis demonstrates that the smaller retouched points are as symmetrical as larger retouched points, which fits expectations for spear tips. The distribution of edge damage is similar to that in an experimental sample of spear tips and is inconsistent with expectations for cutting or scraping tools. Thus, early humans were manufacturing hafted multicomponent tools ~200,000 years earlier than previously thought.
Wilkins and colleagues from Arizona State University and the University of Cape Town examined 500,000-year-old stone points from the South African archaeological site of Kathu Pan 1 and determined that they had functioned as spear tips. Point function was determined by comparing wear on the ancient points to damage inflicted on modern experimental points used to spear a springbok carcass target with a calibrated crossbow. This method has been used effectively to study weaponry from more recent contexts in the Middle East and southern Africa. The stone points exhibit certain types of breaks that occur more commonly when they are used to tip spears compared to other uses.
The significance of the earlier dating is that
“This changes the way we think about early human adaptations and capacities before the origin of our own species,” says Jayne Wilkins, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and lead author of a new study in Science. “Although both Neandertals and humans used stone-tipped spears, this is the first evidence that the technology originated prior to or near the divergence of these two species,” says Wilkins.
Attaching stone points to spears – known as ‘hafting’ – was an important advance in hunting weaponry for early humans. Hafted tools require more effort and foreplanning to manufacture, but a sharp stone point on the end of a spear can increase its killing power.
Hafted spear tips are common in Stone Age archaeological sites after 300,000 years ago. This new study shows that they were also used in the early Middle Pleistocene, a period associated with Homo heidelbergensis and the last common ancestor of Neandertals and modern humans.
“It now looks like some of the traits that we associate with modern humans and our nearest relatives can be traced further back in our lineage”, Wilkins says.