Early humans in Europe hunted with bows and arrows 54,000 years ago

This extends the evidence of archery in Europe back by about 40,000 years.
Nergis Firtina
The Neronian tiny points found in Grotte Mandrin were experimentally reproduced using the same flint and replicating the same technologies.
The Neronian tiny points found in Grotte Mandrin were experimentally reproduced using the same flint and replicating the same technologies.

Ludovic Slimak/The University of Connecticut 

A new study led by an international research team proves that people's knowledge of archery dates back roughly 54,000 years in Europe. The study focuses on a rich level attributable to the Neronian culture.

The researchers examined lithic items from the Grotte Mandrin cave in France, demonstrating the earliest modern human occupancy on the European continent, suggests The University of Connecticut.

They also concluded that Neanderthal occupations in the cave before and after modern humans. That’s roughly 10,000 years earlier than what had been previously believed to be the earliest occupation of modern humans in Europe.

The study highlights different weaponry traditions among Neanderthals – theirs were systematically represented by heavy hasted weapons, thrusting spears, or hand-thrown javelins – and demonstrates a profound technological contrast between Neanderthal populations and the first modern humans arriving on the European continent.

Early humans in Europe hunted with bows and arrows 54,000 years ago
Laure Metz making experimental bow and arrow shots with arrows armed with Neronian light points.

“When Neanderthals use their traditional weapons, such as a spear thrusted or thrown by hand, the first modern humans came with bow and arrows technologies,” says Laure Metz, an associated researcher at Aix-Marseille University.

“Bows are used in all environments, open or closed, from the desert and are effective for all prey sizes. Arrows can be shot quickly, with more precision. Many arrows can be carried in a quiver during a hunting foray. These technologies then allowed an incomparable efficiency in all hunting activities when Neanderthals had to hunt in close or direct contact with their prey, a process that may have been much more complex, more hazardous, and even much more dangerous when hunting large game like bison,” she adds.

Over 1,000 flint have been analyzed

An examination of over 1,000 flint points from Grotte Mandrin reveals that a large percentage were utilized as armatures for bow-propelled arrows. Because the tips are so little - some 30 percent weigh only a few grams - the researchers ruled out any other means of ballistic propulsion besides arrows.

“Research is ongoing in Grotte Mandrin, and the last field season revealed that the site was far larger than expected and should cover an impressive surface of more than 1,000 square meters, with a high density of archeological material even far from the entrance of the cave,” says Metz. 

“Grotte Mandrin has already totally reshaped our understanding of the last Neanderthals and the first migrations of Sapiens in continental Europe, deeply changing the way we understand this major event in the human history that saw the extinction of our last cousins, leaving for the first time the planet with only 1 hominin species,” she says.

The study was published in Science Advances on February 22.

Study abstract:

Consensus in archaeology has posited that mechanically propelled weapons, such as bow-and-arrow or spear-thrower-and-dart combinations, appeared abruptly in the Eurasian record with the arrival of anatomically and behaviorally modern humans and the Upper Paleolithic (UP) after 45,000 to 42,000 years (ka) ago, while evidence for weapon use during the preceding Middle Paleolithic (MP) in Eurasia remains sparse. The ballistic features of MP points suggest that they were used on hand-cast spears, whereas UP lithic weapons are focused on microlithic technologies commonly interpreted as mechanically propelled projectiles, a crucial innovation distinguishing UP societies from preceding ones. Here, we present the earliest evidence for mechanically propelled projectile technology in Eurasia from Layer E of Grotte Mandrin 54 ka ago in Mediterranean France, demonstrated via use-wear and impact damage analyses. These technologies, associated with the oldest modern human remains currently known from Europe, represent the technical background of these populations during their first incursion into the continent.

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