More on oldest spears

Glenn Morton (
Thu, 13 Mar 1997 22:35:41 -0600

I finally got the Nature with the spear report. I thought some of the
commentary might be of interest.

"Just occasionally, an archaeological discovery leaves one speechless.
Reasons usually concern the degree of preservation, the unexpectedness of the
find, and its wider implications. The discovery of complete, unambiguous
throwing-spears 380,000 to 400,000 years old at Schoningen in Germany,
described by Thieme on page 807 of this issue meets all these criteria."~Robin
Dennell, "The World's Oldest Spears," Nature 385(Feb. 27, 1997), p. 767

"The implications of the Schoningen spears are no less extraordinary than
the degree of their preservation. First, these are unquestionably spears, and
second, as such they must have been used for hunting large mammals. Why are
these simple inferences so significant to paleolithic archaeologists? The
reason is simply that hunting has become profoundly unfashionable in
discussions of the lower, and even Middle, Palaeolithic over the past twenty
years. Until the 1960s, stone tools associated with large mammal remains were
routinely explained as indicating the butchery of animals that had been
hunted. Important examples were the initial interpretations of the very
ancient 'living floors', 1.8 million years old, at Olduvai in Tanzania, and
the alleged elephant hunters at the much younger, Middle Pleistocene sites of
Torralba and Ambrona, Spain. Then came a long reappraisal of how these stone
tools and hominid and other mammal remains were found together. This was
driven initially by Brain's re-examination of the australopithecine deposits
at Swartkrans, South Africa, by Binford's criticisms of the assumptions and
methodologies used at Olduvai and, later, by patient analysis of cut-and
gnawing-marks, surface weathering and skeletal parts frequency at Koobi Fora
and Olduvai, often under the inspiration of the late Glynn Isaac.
"By the early 1980s, few of the claims for big-game hunting in the Lower
and even Middle Palaeolithic could be substantiated, as evidence was too
disturbed, fragmented and poorly preserved to show deliberate, purposeful
hunting. Scavenging by both carnivores and hominids seemed a more reasonable
inference, and some even suggested that big-game hunting did not occur until
the appearance of fully modern humans in the Upper Pleistocene, about 40,000
years ago. To fit this picture, the Clacton and Lehringen spears were
down-graded to digging-sticks or, imaginatively, snow-probes for locating
buried carcasses." ~Robin Dennell, "The World's Oldest Spears," Nature
385(Feb. 27, 1997), p. 767

"The Schoningen spears now provide unambiguous evidence that large animals
were killed in this manner by 400,000 years ago.
"The spears have other exciting implications. First, the time and skill
needed to make them: each is made from the trunk of a 30-year-old spruce tree;
in each, the end with the tip come from the base of the trunk, where the wood
is hardest; and each has the same proportions, with the center of gravity a
third of the way from the sharp end, as in a modern javelin. These represent
considerable investment of time and skill--in selecting an appropriate tree,
in roughing out the design and in the final stages of shaping. In other
words, these hominids were not living within a spontaneous 'five-minute
culture', acting opportunistically in response to immediate situations.
Rather, we see considerable depth of planning, sophistication of design, and
patience in carving the wood, all of which have been attributed only to modern
humans." ~Robin Dennell, "The World's Oldest Spears," Nature 385(Feb. 27,
1997), p. 767-768

The five-minute culture is what chimpanzees live in. they have an ability
to plan about 5 minutes in advance of their actions.

Thieme notes,

"The Schoningen evidence also illustrates how little is known about the
'organic' component of early hominid material culture." Hartmut Thieme,
"Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears form Germany," Nature, 385(Feb. 27,1997),
p. 807


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