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September 23, 2019

Schöningen Spears

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Pictured above and below are the Schöningen spears.

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From Archaeology (1997):

Radiocarbon dating has confirmed that three wooden spears found in a coal mine in Schöningen, near Hannover, Germany, are the oldest complete hunting weapons ever found.

Some 380,000 to 400,000 years old, the 6- to 7.5-foot javelins were found in soil whose acids had been neutralized by a high concentration of chalk near the coal pit.

They suggest that early man was able to hunt, and was not just a scavenger.

The development of such weapons may have been crucial to the settling of Stone Age northern Europe, whose cold climate and short daylight hours limited hunting.

The spears show design and construction skills previously attributed only to modern humans.

"They are really high tech," says Hartmut Thieme of the Institut für Denkmalpflege in Hannover, who discovered them while excavating in advance of a rotary shovel digger used in the mine. "They are made of very tough Picea [spruce] trunk and are similarly carved." Their frontal center of gravity suggests they were used as javelins, says Thieme.

The only comparable find dating to the same period is a yew lance tip from Clacton-on-Sea, England, discovered in 1911.

Thieme says the Schöningen discovery is important because it proves that the Clacton lance tip was not just a chance find and that spears were probably being made in large quantities.

The Clacton lance tip suggested that people may have been hunting; the three spears from Schöningen now make it fairly certain that they were not merely scavenger-gatherers.

That early man hunted big game is supported by the recent discovery of a fossilized rhinoceros shoulder blade with a projectile wound at Boxgrove, England, dated to 500,000 years ago.

Studies revealed the wound was probably caused by a spear.

As paleoanthropologist Wil Roebroeks of the University of Leiden points out, however, "we still haven't determined whether early man hunted in large groups, or whether they used pits to trap the animals first."

Thousands of pieces of horse, elephant, and deer bone were also found at Schöningen.

The bones showed cut marks from stone flints found with grooved wooden tools that probably held the flints.

If Thieme can prove the flints were hafted in the wooden tools, they will be the oldest known composite tools in the world.

From Wikipedia (2019):

The Schöningen spears are a set of eight wooden throwing spears from the Palaeolithic Age that were excavated between 1994 and 1998 in the open-cast lignite mine in Schöningen, Helmstedt district, Germany.
 
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Originally assessed as being between 380,000 and 400,000 years old, they represent the oldest completely preserved hunting weapons of prehistoric Europe so far discovered.
 
As such they predate the age of Neanderthal Man (by convention taken to emerge after 300,000 years ago), and is associated with Homo heidelbergensis.
 
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The spears support the practice of hunting by archaic humans in Europe in the late Lower Paleolithic.
 
The age of the spears was estimated from their stratigraphic position, "sandwiched between deposits of the Elsterian and Saalian glaciations, and situated within a well-studied sedimentary sequence."
 
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More recently, thermoluminescence dating of heated flints in a deposit beneath that which contained the spears suggested that the spears were between 337,000 and 300,000 years old.

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From Science Daily (2019):

A study published earlier this year in Nature examined the performance of replicas of the 300,000 year old Schöningen spears — the oldest weapons reported in archaeological records — to identify whether javelin throwers could use them to hit a target at distance.

The research showed that the wooden spears would have enabled Neanderthals to use them as weapons and kill at distance.

It is a significant finding, given that previous studies considered Neanderthals could only hunt and kill their prey at close range.

Dr. Matt Pope (University College London Institute of Archaeology), a co-author of the paper, said, "The emergence of weaponry — technology designed to kill — is a critical but poorly established threshold in human evolution."

"We have forever relied on tools and have extended our capabilities through technical innovation. Understanding when we first developed the capabilities to kill at distance is therefore a dark but important moment in our story."

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You can see the actual spears at the Paläon Museum, located at the Schöningen open-cast mine where the spears were discovered.

September 23, 2019 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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