The return of man the hunter
by Henry Gee
The old concept of Stone-Age Man as a proficient big-game hunter has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years. Patient re-examination of supposed ancient kill sites, comparative studies of modern hunter-gatherer peoples (and, it must be said, a certain amount of political correctness) has turned macho and musclebound Palaeolithic hunters into sorry scavengers of everyone else's left-overs.
This could all change with a truly astonishing archaeological find from Germany, reported in the 27 February 1997 Nature. Dr Hartmut Thieme describes three wooden spears recovered from a lignite mine at Schöningen, about 100 km east of Hannover. The spears are each carefully carved from a single trunk of spruce, about two metres long, shaped and balanced for throwing in the manner of modern javelins, and 400,000 years old. This makes them the oldest wooden hunting weapons ever found. "Wooden finds like these would be sensational if only 3000 years old; ones a hundred times older are almost unimaginable" says Professor Robin Dennell of the University of Sheffield.
The spears come from an ancient 'living floor' and are accompanied by stone tools and the bones of horses and other animals. Many of the horse bones show signs of deliberate butchery, and there is even a hint of a hearth. Could this be the remains of a hunting camp? The implications of the Schöningen finds for our picture of early human behaviour are profound. The spears show that even at this early date, people approached problems with a great deal of foresight. The carvers of the spears didn't have a "five-minute culture", hunting a horse by lobbing the nearest rock at it. They maintained a clear mental picture of the requirements of successful hunting for weeks or months before the hunt, clear enough to select the appropriate tree and fell it, and to age and prepare the wood with the final purpose in mind: making a hunting spear. Just like javelin, the business ends of the spears are broad and pointed, and made from the bases of the trees: the densest, heaviest part of the wood, just right for maintaining a true trajectory in flight, and for maximum effect on impact. The tail ends are slender and tapering.
The Schöningen spears are not the first evidence of Palaeolithic wooden hunting weapons, even if they are the most convincing. In 1948, a 125,000-year-old wooden spear was found inside an elephant skeleton at Lehringen, also in Germany: in 1911, the tip of what might have been a spear was found at Clacton in England, in deposits similar in age to those of Schöningen. At the time, these finds were interpeted as weapons.
But since the 1960s, careful reexamination has cast doubt on these interpretations. Comparative anthropological studies on modern hunter-gatherer people has shown how it is the gathering by women, rather than the hunting by men, that supplies more (and more reliable) calories for the tribe as a whole. Careful study of many of the supposed stone-age hunting sites has raised the possibility that humans could easily have scavenged carcases killed by other animals as hunted them down themselves.
Perhaps most persuasively, evidence has emerged, mainly from the study of stone tools, that early humans were unable to think and plan with the depth and strategy necessary to hunt big game such as horses, bison and mammoths. They made tools in a more instinctive way, in the same way that birds make nests. Either that, or they made tools on the spur of the moment, for disposable, once-only use. Something as carefully crafted as a hunting javelin would have been out of the question. This all changed around 40,000 years ago, when the appearance of cave paintings, sculptures and worked implements of bone and antler provide evidence for the appearance of what we today would understand as a modern way of thinking.
In this light the ancient spears from Lehringen and Clacton were reinterpreted as digging sticks, or possibly probes to find carcasses buried under snow. The purpose of the Schöningen spears is, however, unambiguous. Says Dennell: "to regard them as snow-probes or digging sticks is like claiming that power drills are paperweights".
In a wider context, the new discovery tells us something very profound about the makers of the tools. Most researchers think that Europe before about 500,000 years ago was extremely sparsely populated. The earliest evidence we have consist of a rich haul of skeletons from a cave at Atapuerca, Spain, dating from as long ago as 780,000 years ago. Other ancient remains are known from France, Italy, Spain, England and Germany. After around 300,000 years ago, these early Europeans are clearly Neanderthals. The identities of the earlier ones are less clear, but some seem to have been the ancestors of Neanderthals.
Most people agree, however, that the first residents of Europe were only distantly related to the modern humans who appeared in Europe 40,000 years ago, possibly from western Asia, bringing their art and technology with them. It is easy to condemn what Dr Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London calls the 'ancients', such as Neanderthals, as dull-witted by comparison with the 'moderns' that came later.[/b] The evidence of the spears from Schöningen suggests that this view is mistaken. The ancients seem to have been hunters of considerable mental and physical skill. The rarity of ancient wooden implements of any kind shows how little we really know about the material culture of long-vanished peoples, and how concentrating on the few aspects we have left (such as stone tools) may be seriously misleading.
© Macmillan Magazines Ltd. ‹ NATURE NEWS SERVICE 1996
Note: This science update from the Nature News Service would normally be mounted on the Nature site. By special permission, the update is mounted on this Web page while the Nature page is being revised. http://mygeologypage.ucdavis.edu/cowen/ ... pears.html