Scientists working in South Africa have unearthed the oldest-known spear tips, apparently made by a common ancestor of people and Neandertals around 500,000 years ago.
More than 200 stone points found at a site called Kathu Pan 1 display modifications and damage consistent with having been attached to spear handles and hurled at animal prey such as springbok, say Jayne Wilkins, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and her colleagues.
“These were close-range weapons, either thrusting spears or spears thrown from fairly short distances,” Wilkins says.
A description of the South African spear points appears in the Nov. 16 Science.
Human ancestors were regularly killing game by 780,000 years ago in the Middle East, as evidenced by remains of butchered deer carcasses. Until now, the earliest stone spear tips came from a Neandertal site in France dating to between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago. Wooden spears from 400,000 years ago have been found among the remains of butchered horses in Germany (SN: 3/1/97, p. 134).
Wilkins’ team determined an approximate age for the Kathu Pan 1 discoveries using a soil analysis method that estimates the time since artifacts were buried.
If the half-million-year-old age for the spear tips holds up, “the conclusion that Neandertals and Homo sapiens shared whatever mental abilities undergird hafted stone-tool technology seems reasonable,” remarks archaeologist John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York.
Wilkins’ investigation follows a report that humans at South Africa’s Pinnacle Point caves used spear throwers or bows to launch projectiles tipped with tiny stone blades at least 71,000 years ago (SN Online: 11/17/12).
The two sets of finds “document a two-step process of projectile weapon evolution that ultimately allowed modern humans to conquer the planet,” says archaeologist Curtis Marean of Arizona State University in Tempe. Marean directs Pinnacle Point excavations.
He suggests that a common ancestor of humans and Neandertals began heaving stone-tipped spears at animals by a half-million years ago, but it wasn’t until much later that Stone Age people figured out how to make devices such as spear throwers that hurl weapons farther, harder and more accurately.
Fractures on the business ends of the Kathu Pan 1 stone points and intentional shaping of some of their bases indicate that these implements were spear tips. Wilkins’ team made replicas of the stone artifacts and attached them to the ends of wooden dowels using Acacia resin and animal sinews. Experimenters fired these makeshift spears into two springbok carcasses using a calibrated crossbow that simulated the force used by an adult spear thrower.
After repeated impacts, damage to the replicas looked much like that on Kathu Pan 1 stone points, Wilkins says.