Archaeologists identify spear tips used in hunting a half-million years ago

November 15, 2012
This is a ~500,000-year-old point from Kathu Pan 1. Multiple lines of evidence from a University of Toronto-led study indicate that points from Kathu Pan 1 were used as hafted spear tips. Scale bar = 1 cm. Credit: Jayne Wilkins

A University of Toronto-led team of anthropologists has found evidence that human ancestors used stone-tipped weapons for hunting 500,000 years ago – 200,000 years earlier than previously thought.

"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 for . 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 after 300,000 years ago. This new study shows that they were also used in the early Middle Pleistocene, a period associated with and the last common ancestor of and modern humans.

These are examples of experimental hafted points from a University of Toronto-led study. Points were hafted to wooden dowels using Acacia resin and sinew and then thrust into a springbok carcass target using a calibrated crossbow. The Kathu Pan 1 archaeological points show a similar pattern of edge damage to these experimental points. Credit: Jayne Wilkins

"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.

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.

This is a mounted crossbow used for spearing experiments in a University of Toronto-led study that showed that ~500,000-year-old points from Kathu Pan 1 were used as hafted spear tips. Credit: Benjamin Schoville

"The archaeological points have damage that is very similar to replica spear points used in our spearing experiment," says Wilkins. "This type of damage is not easily created through other processes."

The findings are reported in the paper "Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology" published in the November 16, 2012 issue of Science. Other authors contributing to the study are Benjamin Schoville from Arizona State University, Kyle Brown of the University of Cape Town, and University of Toronto archaeologist Michael Chazan. Funding for the research was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the National Science Foundation, and the Hyde Family Foundation. Logistical support came from the South African Heritage Resources Agency and the McGregor Museum, Kimberley, South Africa.

The points were recovered during 1979-1982 excavations by Peter Beaumont of the McGregor Museum. In 2010, a team directed by Chazan reported that the point-bearing deposits at Kathu Pan 1 dated to ~500,000 years ago using optically stimulated luminescence and U-series/electron spin resonance methods. The dating analyses were carried out by Naomi Porat, Geological Survey of Israel, and Rainer Grün, Australian National University.

Explore further: Study pushes back onset date of South Africa's Later Stone Age by more than 20,000 years

More information: "Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology," by J. Wilkins et al. Science, 2012.

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1 / 5 (4) Nov 15, 2012
dated to ~500,000 years ago using . . . 'optically stimulated luminescence and U-series/electron spin resonance methods.'

2.1 / 5 (8) Nov 15, 2012
People wonder why Homo Sapiens didn't create civilization hundreds of thousands of years ago. Well, ice ages didn't help.

But, even back then, 'dark ages' could have happened. Enlightenment periods always happen after dark ages! Everyone notes the Renaissance; but, the classical Greek period from Thales throught the Hellenistic Roman period also occured after a dark ages after the sea peoples destroyed everything from the Hittites, to the lavant, and almost the Egyptians around 1200 B.C. This period saw the end of the city of Troy period.

Well, why couldn't there have been dark ages back hundreds of thousands of years ago? Why not indeed! Ice ages for one could have created dark ages. We know a supervolcano caused a hugh drop in population(it's been shown to have an effect on our genes).

This article was interesting from many standpoints, including our own advanced ability to dig it up!
2.1 / 5 (8) Nov 15, 2012
perhaps advanced hunting requires far less intelligence than we thought. crows and monkeys use tools. maybe primitive precursor species to modern h.s. used tools for hundred of millenia.

perhaps the fossil record is very inaccurate, or perhaps we jsut cannot learn that much from fossils , or consider a combination of the many sources of uncertainty, we can never know that much factual information about the past, but the little we do know at least gives us a handle to hold.
3.3 / 5 (3) Nov 16, 2012
We found hundreds of fossils from this time, weapons, tools, fire pits, even footprints yet somehow we missed Homo erectus' Middle Ages? The australopithecine Camelot? The Neanderthal Byzantine Empire? Sure....

Until you can provide something more then speculation your idea stays in the realm of fairies and unicorns.
4.2 / 5 (5) Nov 16, 2012
People wonder why Homo Sapiens didn't create civilization hundreds of thousands of years ago. Well, ice ages didn't help."

The development of what we think of as 'civilization' (i.e., living together in cities)required the development of agriculture, which then led to a population surplus. People who were freed up from food gathering could then spend the time and effort to develop new things, organize societies, develope ways to keep track of the food produced ( accounting, bookkeeping, and eventually writing... and taxes)and so-on.
So the civilizations that rose up stood on the shoulders of local farmers.
1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 16, 2012
Surprised to see the readiness to condemn any honest admission of our inadequacies as archaeologists. What we find is darned little compared with what probably was once extant. Any geneologist will tell you that even in present times, precious little is left behind by most people when they pass on.

Our structures have longevity inverse to the level of tech that built it. Just look at the modern house compared to Roman apartments made of stone. Our tech gadgets may fare better. Wonder how long an iPod would last if lost at sea and sedimented over by alluvium for millions of years.

It IS logical to wonder why humans lived for hundreds of thousands of years and did NOTHING but make spears and babies. Up to recently they did not even scrawl 'art' in caves or make items like dishes, the stuff of archaeology. Yet there are 8000 year old towns with square blocks, plumbing with valves, in Turkmenistan! Points to alien bioengineering! Decode that DNA...all of it!
5 / 5 (2) Nov 17, 2012
Osiris1: They did more, for example we now know our dogs weren't the first domesticated canines. However the populations were never much dense. So we know why nothing much took off.

As for extraneous hypotheses: when you hear hoof beats, think horses not zebras. And you would have to have extraordinary evidence to prove extraordinary claims.

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