300,000-year-old deadly weapon reveals surprising human advancement

It was meticulously scraped, seasoned, and sanded before being 'boomeranged' in animal hunting. 
Sade Agard
An image of the Schonigen double pointed wooden throwing stick.
An image of the Schonigen double pointed wooden throwing stick.

Volker Minkus 

A 300,000-year-old hunting weapon found in Schöningen, Germany, has unveiled new insights into early human capabilities as woodworking experts, according to a recent study published in PLoS ONE on July 19.

The new state-of-the-art analysis of a double-pointed wooden throwing stick revealed that it was meticulously scraped, seasoned, and sanded before being employed in animal hunting. 

These findings challenge previous notions, highlighting that early humans' woodworking techniques were far more advanced and sophisticated than previously believed.

Ancient woodworking techniques

"Discoveries of wooden tools have revolutionized our understanding of early human behaviors," expressed lead author Dr. Annemieke Milks, from the University of Reading's Department of Archaeology, in a press release.

The findings reveal that early humans demonstrated the ability to plan well in advance and possessed a strong knowledge of wood properties, displaying many sophisticated woodworking skills that we still utilize today.

The Schöningen throwing stick, measuring 77 centimeters in length, was made from a spruce branch by Schöningen humans in a way that it is an aerodynamic and ergonomic tool, explained co-author Dirk Leder.

"The woodworking involved multiple steps including cutting and stripping off the bark, carving it into an aerodynamic shape, scraping away more of the surface, seasoning the wood to avoid cracking and warping, and sanding it for easier handling."

This level of craftsmanship indicates that these tools were meticulously prepared for repeated use rather than quickly made and discarded.

"These lightweight throwing sticks may have been easier to launch than heavier spears, indicating the potential for the whole community to take part. Such tools could have been used by children while learning to throw and hunt," Milks added. 

A precise and deadly weapon

The throwing stick's fine surface, carefully shaped points, and polished appearance suggest it was a personal and prized possession rather than a utilitarian tool. 

300,000-year-old deadly weapon reveals surprising human advancement
Artistic reconstruction showing the stick would have been thrown.

Initially found in 1994 among other tools, such as throwing and thrusting spears, the double-pointed throwing stick is believed to have been used for hunting medium-sized game like red and roe deer and possibly fast, small prey like hare and birds. 

Early humans likely threw these sticks rotationally, similar to boomerangs, instead of overhead like modern-day javelins. This technique could have enabled them to throw with impressive force and accuracy, possibly reaching distances up to 30 meters. 

Despite its lightweight nature, the throwing stick's high velocities meant it could deliver deadly high-energy impacts on its targets.

"The systematic analysis of the wooden finds of the Schöningen site financed by the German Research Foundation provides valuable new insights, and further exciting information on these early wooden weapons can be expected soon," principal investigator Thomas Terberger concluded.

The complete study was published in PLoS ONE on July 19 and can be found here.

Study abstract:

The site of Schöningen (Germany), dated to ca. 300,000 years ago, yielded the earliest large-scale record of humanly-made wooden tools. These include wooden spears and shorter double-pointed sticks, discovered in association with herbivores that were hunted and butchered along a lakeshore. Wooden tools have not been systematically analysed to the same standard as other Palaeolithic technologies, such as lithic or bone tools. Our multianalytical study includes micro-CT scanning, 3-dimensional microscopy, and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, supporting a systematic technological and taphonomic analysis, thus setting a new standard for wooden tool analysis. In illustrating the biography of one of Schöningen’s double-pointed sticks, we demonstrate new human behaviours for this time period, including sophisticated woodworking techniques. The hominins selected a spruce branch which they then debarked and shaped into an aerodynamic and ergonomic tool. They likely seasoned the wood to avoid cracking and warping. After a long period of use, it was probably lost while hunting, and was then rapidly buried in mud. Taphonomic alterations include damage from trampling, fungal attack, root damage and compression. Through our detailed analysis we show that Middle Pleistocene humans had a rich awareness of raw material properties, and possessed sophisticated woodworking skills. Alongside new detailed morphometrics of the object, an ethnographic review supports a primary function as a throwing stick for hunting, indicating potential hunting strategies and social contexts including for communal hunts involving children. The Schöningen throwing sticks may have been used to strategically disadvantage larger ungulates, potentially from distances of up to 30 metres. They also demonstrate that the hominins were technologically capable of capturing smaller fast prey and avian fauna, a behaviour evidenced at contemporaneous Middle Pleistocene archaeological sites.

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