November 16th, 2012 by James Ayre
There has been a lot of debate amongst researchers about when certain technologies were first used by humans. To a large degree this is due to the sparseness of archaeological records from that far back, and also to the quick decomposition of many of the technologies and their components. And this debate is further complicated by the changes to the climate have occurred over the past million or so years, and the associated sea level rise; as humans tend to live near coasts or rivers, and any associated artifacts would be underwater now.
Many researchers argue that the human ancestors that lived 100,000-1,000,000 or so years ago (throughout Europe and Asia) didn’t have the cognitive ability to create many of the technologies that are recorded as being used strictly by ‘modern’ humans. Though the arguments used to support this are generally not very strong, simply a lack of evidence that they did, and assumptions of modern superiority. It also ignores that fact that people could very well have the ability to create a technology but never have the need for it, and thus never create it. It seems to be far more likely that technology arises either from necessity or competition with other technology.
And as this new finding, and many other recent ones have shown, various predecessors of modern humans did in fact possess many of the technologies that were previously assumed to be unique to modern humans.
This new discovery shows that humans used stone-tipped weapons at least 200,000 years earlier than had previously been considered possible.
According to one of the researchers: “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. (Editors note: Referring to these early humans as a separate species seems to me to be either dishonest or arbitrary, in any practical way they would have been very similar to modern humans; simply stronger, taller, and likely smarter and more capable in any directly competitive way.)
“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.
The researchers conducted a thorough investigation of 500,000-year-old stone points found in the South African site of Kathu Pan 1, and concluded that these tips had been attached to spears and functioned as the killing point.
“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 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 were just reported in the research paper “Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology” published in the journal Science.
Image Credits: Jayne Wilkins
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