Ancient Spears show Early Humans were Highly Skilled

Researchers from the University of Tubingen in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg have reported on their analysis of the animal remains, flora and evidence of skilled human craftsmen and hunters.  This study indicates that hominids that once roamed southern Germany 400,000 years ago were capable of making strong, sturdy spears tipped with finely knapped flints.  The scientists have concluded that these spears are evidence of skilled hunters, who would have used careful planning and foresight to ensure a successful hunt.  These weapons are believed to be some of the oldest ever discovered and they have been ascribed to a hominid known as Homo heidelbergensis.  The use of such sophisticated technology as early as the Middle Pleistocene epoch suggests many accepted theories on primitive human behaviour and capabilities may have to be re-written.

A Close up of One of the Flint Spearheads

Crafted with considerable skill

Picture Credit: Dr. Nicholas Conrad/University of Tubingen

In 1907, a workman found a human jawbone in a sand quarry near the small village of Mauer, to the south-east of the German town of Heidelberg.  Otto Shoetensack, a renowned German palaeontologist, had been convinced that early human remains would be found in the ancient layers of sand at this site and the jawbone was evidence of a primitive Neanderthal-like hominid having once lived in that area.  Subsequent skull discoveries, this time in Africa led to this jawbone and the skulls being ascribed to a new species of early human – H. heidelbergensis.  Although known from only a few fragmentary fossil bones, including a massive shin bone found in West Sussex, this hominid is believed to have been the direct ancestor of both the Neanderthals and modern humans.  H. heidelbergensis may have evolved from Homo ergaster and it was the first hominid to colonise the colder parts of northern Europe.   The flint spearheads and beautifully well-preserved wooden spear shafts have been found at an opencast coalmine just one hundred kilometres away from the site of the original H. heidelbergensis jawbone discovery.

A total of eight spears were found at the coalmine location.  A team of researchers from the University of Tubingen’s Institute of Prehistory led by Dr. Jordi Serangeli and Dr. Nicholas Conrad are continuing to study the site and the remarkable information it is providing about life in the Pleistocene epoch.  The human artefacts have been found amongst the remains of butchered horses, water buffalo and aurochs (ancient cattle).  It seems that these early hunters were capable of tackling and bringing down large prey.  The site has also provided the scientists with information about the flora in Germany at the time, leaves of alder and the pine cones of fir trees have been preserved, along with pollen from many types of plants.  The weapons have been ascribed to Homo heidelbergensis, although no human remains have been found at this site, amongst the bones of elephants, rhinos and even lions.

One of the Wooden Spear Shafts Found at the Site

Ascribed to H. heidelbergensis

Picture Credit: Dr. Nicholas Conrad/University of Tubingen

The strata that contains the preserved Pleistocene evidence had been under the water table and this watery environment may have helped preserve the remains, permitting the scientists to learn so much about life in northern Europe for some of our ancient ancestors.   The wooden spears do not seem designed for throwing. They were most likely used as thrusting weapons at close quarters.  The flint spearheads show considerable skill in their construction and they would have been carefully joined onto the thick, wooden spear shaft using animal sinews.  Based on the fossil evidence and these spears, it seems clear that H. heidelbergensis was physically bigger and stronger than modern people.  Palaeoanthropologists have estimated that both males and females may have stood over six feet tall and that the males would have weighed around eighty kilogrammes with the females slightly lighter.  These eight spears, so carefully crafted by our ancestors may prove to be the oldest weapons ever found in Europe.

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