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Homo heidelbergensis used wooden weapons to hunt waterbirds and horses


Ice Age hunters in northern Europe were highly skilled and used a wide range of effective weapons. A wooden throwing stick found by the team of the University of Tubingen and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment in Schoningen, Lower Saxony, Germany, highlights the complexity of early hunting. The discovery is presented in a new paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Homo heidelbergensis used wooden weapons to hunt waterbirds and horses
Rendering of hunters on the Schoningen lakeshore using throwing sticks to hunt horses
[Credit: Benoit Clarys]




Research at Schoningen demonstrates that already 300,000 years ago Homo heidelbergensis used a combination of throwing sticks, spears and thrusting lances. Prof. Nicholas Conard and Dr. Jordi Serangeli, who lead the research team, attribute the exceptional discovery to the outstanding preservation of wooden artifacts in the water saturated lakeside sediments in Schoningen.

The throwing stick was recovered in layer 13 II-4, which in the 1990s yielded examples of throwing spears, a thrusting lance and additional wooden tools of unknown function. Like almost all of these finds, the new artifact was carefully carved from spruce wood. The throwing stick is 64.5 cm long, 2.9 cm in diameter and weighs 264 grams. The cross-section is asymmetrical with a round and a flatter side.

Homo heidelbergensis used wooden weapons to hunt waterbirds and horses
The new throwing stick in situ at the time of discovery
[Credit: Alexander Gonschior]



Use-wear analysis conducted by Veerle Rots from the University of Liege shows how the maker of the throwing stick used stone tools to cut the branches flush and then to smooth the surface of the artifact. The artifact preserves impact fractures and damage consistent with that found on ethnographic and experimental examples of throwing sticks.

When in flight, throwing sticks, also referred to as "rabbit sticks" and "killing sticks" rotate around their center of gravity, and do not return to the thrower, as is the case with boomerangs. Instead the rotation helps to maintain a straight, accurate trajectory while increasing the likelihood of striking prey animals. 

Homo heidelbergensis used wooden weapons to hunt waterbirds and horses
The new throwing stick after preservation 
[Credit: Alexander Gonschior]




Jordi Serangeli explains: “They are effective weapons at diverse distances and can be used to kill or wound birds or rabbits or to drive larger game, such as the horses that were killed and butchered in large numbers in the Schoningen lakeshore.” Remains of swans and ducks are well-documented in the find horizon.

Experiments show that throwing sticks of this size reach maximum speeds of 30 meters per second. Dr. Gerlinda Bigga, who studies the structure of the wood used for tools, remarked that “Ethnographic studies from North America, Africa and Australia show that the range of such weapons varies from 5 to over 100 meters.”

Homo heidelbergensis used wooden weapons to hunt waterbirds and horses
Overview of the excavation at Schoningen
[Credit: Jordi Serangeli]




“The chances of finding Palaeolithic artifacts made of wood are normally zero”, says Nicho-las Conard. “Schoningen, with its exceptional preservation, has yielded by far the largest and most important record of wooden tools and hunting equipment from the Palaeolithic.”


The excavations at Schoningen are funded by the Ministry of Science and Culture of the State of Niedersachsen and are conducted in cooperation with the State Heritage Office of Lower Saxony.


TANN

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2 comments :

  1. Many thanks for this beautiful article.
    However, one important correction: "Jordi Serangeli explains: 'They are effective weapons at diverse distances and can be used to kill or wound birds or rabbits or to drive larger game, such as the horses that were killed and butchered in large numbers in the Schoningen lakeshore'." But Jordi Serangeli's own article in Nature Ecol.Evol. (2nd author), on the Schöningen 13 II-4 Spear Horizon: "Recent research has helped to redefine the original excavator's hypothesis that the find horizon was formed in connection with a single mass killing of dozens of horses. Instead, the find horizon provides a record of hominin activities over an extended period of time on a Middle Pleistocene lakeshore, rather than as a single great event of slaughter and social aggregation as was originally proposed."
    And Mareike Stahlschmidt & Christopher Miller (2014): "Previous researchers suggested that human activity at Schöningen took place on a surface on the dry lake shore during times of low water levels, and that the archaeological assemblage was embedded in situ with rising lake level. The micro-morphological analyses of the find-bearing layers revealed no evidence for drying events. Instead they demonstrated a subaqueous deposition of the associated sediment."
    All this suggests that the throwing-stick was used by archaic people wading in shallow water for killing ducks or swans or perhaps fish ("remains of swans & ducks are well-documented in the find horizon") rather than horses.
    This semi-aquatic interpretation fits the biological & archeological evidence that neandertals still spent a lot of time in shallow water, wading bipedally & diving for aquatic & waterside foods, e.g. shellfish (Villa 2020 PLoS ONE doi org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226690), waterlilies (traces in dental plaque, Spy, Belgium), cattails (traces on neandertal tools) etc.
    In any case, the biological evidence is clear: archaic humans (erectus, neandertals etc.) had a lot of traits typically seen in semi-aquatic mammals, e.g. pachyosteosclerosis (very heavy sekeletons), brain enlargement (DHA), platycephaly (long low flat brain-skulls), extensive ear exostoses, very broad bodies, large lungs, projecting mid-faces etc., see e.g. my 2013 article in Human Evolution ("The aquatic ape evolves: common misconceptions and unproven assumptions about the so-called Aquatic Ape Hypothesis" Hum.Evol.28:237-266) or for an update & recent refs, google "coastal dispersal of Pleistocene Homo 2018 biology vs anthropocentrism".

    ReplyDelete
  2. Really deep insights of our civilisation awesome

    ReplyDelete


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