Media Releases

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

November 16, 2012

Findings suggest hunting with stone-tipped spears began much earlier than previously believed

TORONTO, ON – 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 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.

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 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.

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Note to media: Vis­it for images and the research paper asso­ci­at­ed with this media release.

For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Jayne Wilkins
Depart­ment of Anthro­pol­o­gy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Sean Bet­tam
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–946-7950