Ancient Weapon Evidence Emerges


Verified Military
Sep 7, 2006
Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

March 31, 2008 -- New research concerning some of the world's earliest weapons suggests that while some Stone Age Africans benefited from spurts of high-tech brilliance, Neanderthals and modern humans in Europe battled big beasts in face-to-face combat that must have been bloody and brutal.

The recent discoveries shed light on Paleolithic life in ancient Europe and push back the invention of the bow and arrow in Africa by at least 20,000 years. They paint a picture nearly as vivid as a scene from The Lord of the Rings, with modern humans, Neanderthals and archaic humans all struggling for survival with their various favored weapons in hand.

Early weapon usage may even go back to our primate ancestors.

From Poop Throwing to Rocks

In fact, the roots of today's technologically advanced warfare may be traced back to primates throwing feces. For defense or possibly out of anger, many primates toss poop or vegetation, such as sticks, at intruders.

"Primates have broad hips and they throw poorly," John Shea, a leading expert on ancient weaponry, told Discovery News.

"No one's ever been killed by a thrown turd, but the roots of aimed throwing are there," added Shea, who is an associate professor of anthropology at New York's Stony Brook University.

He explained that humans evolved a rib cage, pelvis and rotating hips and shoulders suitable for fast movement and running. These anatomical modifications gave us better throwing ability, enabling us to do serious damage with just a tossed rock hurled while sprinting.

"Not long ago I watched an East African kid drop a gazelle with a single stone," he said.

Stone and Bone Arrows

As humans became more skilled at shaping stones, arrows and darts emerged. At some point, certain human groups in Africa switched to developing bone tools, including arrowheads made out of animal bones.

One bone tool-making operation, called the Howiesons Poort Industry, was based at Sibudu Cave along the north coast of South Africa. Researchers Lucinda Backwell, Francesco d'Errico and Lyn Wadley recently analyzed three bone tools from the site.

The tools, dating to more than 61,000 years ago, include a slender, needle-like implement likely used in piercing tasks, a polished spatula-shaped piece that probably smoothed and softened animal hides and, most importantly, an arrow point that was likely used for hunting small prey.

Their findings have been accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The scientists believe the bone arrowhead was part of the first known bow and arrow set.

Sleek and Safe

Although the wooden bow part of the set probably eroded long ago, Backwell and her team identified the set by comparing the bone arrowhead with a wide range of bone tools from Southern African Middle and Later Stone Age deposits, an Iron Age occupation, nineteenth century Bushmen hunter-gatherer toolkits and bones that she and her team shaped experimentally.

"The Sibudu point parallels a specific type of large, unpoisoned bone arrow head used [with a bow] by Kalahari Bushmen, Iron Age and Stone Age people," said Backwell of the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

"According to this discovery, the oldest bows and bone arrows are now dated to just over 60,000 years old, and are associated with Howiesons Poort people in the Middle Stone Age," she added. "These large bone points were securely fixed to reed shafts to make one solid projectile implement."

To this day, hunter-gatherer groups use similar tools without poison to kill small mammals and birds. It's probable the ancient South Africans did the same, especially since plant and animal remains suggest the region was a humid forest at around 60,000 years ago.

Pat Shipman, adjunct professor of biological anthropology at Penn State, told Discovery News that the new research "is convincing in its conclusions and has enormous implications for our understanding of changes in human culture."

Shipman explained that when historians debate when modern human behavior first arose, tool and weapon usage are often a big part of that discussion.

If humans were already making sophisticated, multi-part weapons, like bows and arrows, during the Middle Stone Age, then it's possible modern human behavior "accompanied, or closely followed, the physical evolution of anatomically modern humans in Africa around 200,000 years ago," she said.

With a bow and arrow, humans could also hunt more safely.

"Both bows and arrows and spears enable distance killing of species, thus greatly lessening the danger to the hunter of taking large game animals," Shipman said. "Combined with the use of poisons on the points, these new inventions let hunters kill large animals that would previously have been rarely taken by our ancestors."

Big Game Hunting the Hard Way

A very different hunting picture emerges from Europe 30,000 years ago. Evidence for weapon use from that period is sketchy, consisting mostly of polished bone points that might have been secured to heavy wooden shafts.

A new study on human bones, however, suggests Aurignacian modern humans (a culture of the Upper Palaeolithic located in Europe and southwest Asia) killed large animals by thrusting spears into them from very close range.

Anthropologist Eric Trinkaus of Washington University studied bones, including a shoulder blade, belonging to a modern human with traits suggesting some degree of Neanderthal ancestry. That in itself is interesting, indicating possible hybridization between humans and Neanderthals, but Trinkaus focused on whether or not this adult individual could have regularly thrown spears overhead.

His findings have been accepted for publication in the journal Annuaire Roumain d'Anthropologie.

"If these (early Europeans) did a lot of over-arm spear throwing, then it would be unable to effectively resist the forces generated across the joint," he told Discovery News. "The joint would be overstressed and it would degenerate."

Since no such wear and tear is visible on the skeletal remains, he believes "hunting must have involved getting very close to the animals before thrusting the spears, either through ambush hunting or very careful stalking."

The animals might have included wild cattle, horses, wild goats and even larger prey. Woolly mammoths, for example, coexisted with Neanderthals.

Among Neanderthal and archaic human hunting groups, Shea even thinks women and children might have joined in the battles.

"You should see some of the skeletons for these individuals," he said. "The females were big and strong, while a 10-year-old kid must have had muscles comparable to those of today's weight lifters."

The Best Tools for the Job

Since a 30,000-year gap separates the invention of the bow and arrow from what was going on in Europe, it might be expected that the higher tech weapon set would have made its way northward, especially after the big "Out of Africa" emigration 50,000 years ago.

Both Backwell and Shea, however, point out that the bow and arrow innovation did not appear to spread throughout Africa, either due to lack of shared technologies or because people lived under different climatic conditions in various sized populations that warranted different types of hunting.

"Neanderthals, who lived in small groups, couldn't have wasted time chasing small prey, while in Africa, individuals who had to feed more than 50 people probably developed weapons under population pressure," Shea said.

Backwell added, "Bow and arrow technology is not necessarily better than other forms of projectile technology. It is simply more efficient on animals in closed, forested environments, whereas weighted throwing (and thrusting) spears would be better suited to large mammals confronted in the open."

Shipman also believes what Neanderthals and archaic humans lacked in weaponry, they possessed in animal know-how, since early European cave paintings and sculptures reveal their keen and intense understanding of animal behaviors.

Weapons Lost to Time

The recent findings perhaps pose more questions than they answer, Shea said. For example, he wonders why it took more than 100,000 years for humans to develop the bow and arrow. Also, if African humans might have had projectile weaponry in hand 60,000 years ago, he wonders why it took so long for Homo sapiens to leave Africa.

Scientists are also not sure when the first slingshots, throwing sticks, spear throwers, traps, nets and boomerangs emerged. Boomerangs would be out of the big picture, but an ivory one found in Poland dates to 30,000 years ago.

"It weighs 15 pounds and drops like a brick," Shea said.

The researchers hope to solve these puzzles, and more, in the future. One thing that is clear now, however, is that when the bow and arrow took off, it became the weapon of choice for most people over thousands of years.

Shea explained, "It was an equal opportunity weapon that both men and women could have used to hunt down their dinners."
Scientists are also not sure when the first slingshots, throwing sticks, spear throwers, traps, nets and boomerangs emerged. Boomerangs would be out of the big picture, but an ivory one found in Poland dates to 30,000 years ago.

"It weighs 15 pounds and drops like a brick," Shea said.

I love how the first thing someone thought to do with the oldest known boomerang was give it a toss. :doh:
I was particularly interested in the poop throwing part. I have seen some pretty accurate engagements of the fecal type from primates. Throw a rock at a monkey in Gabon Africa and see what happens... bedlam!
I was particularly interested in the poop throwing part. I have seen some pretty accurate engagements of the fecal type from primates. Throw a rock at a monkey in Gabon Africa and see what happens... bedlam!

Same thing in Panama. Little fuckers........