300,000-Year-Old Weapon Reveals Early Humans Were Woodworking Masters

Early Humans Throwing Stick Weapon

Artistic reconstruction showing the stick would have been thrown. Credit: Benoit Clarys

New research on a 300,000-year-old throwing stick reveals advanced woodworking techniques among early humans, suggesting communal hunting practices involving the whole community. The artifact, demonstrating high craftsmanship, indicates early humans’ deep knowledge of wood properties.

Newly conducted research has revealed that early humans were proficient masters of woodworking.

This insight came from the detailed analysis of a 300,000-year-old double-pointed wooden throwing stick, discovered three decades ago in Schöningen, Germany. Research indicates that the stick was meticulously scraped, seasoned, and sanded before being used for hunting, suggesting a more advanced level of early human woodworking skills than previously believed.

Tools That Mobilized Communities

These findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE on July 19, also suggest that the creation of lightweight weapons such as this throwing stick potentially enabled communal hunts of medium and small animals. It is thought that the use of throwing sticks as hunting tools could have been a community-wide activity, even including children.

Dr. Annemieke Milks, of the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology, led the research. She said: “Discoveries of wooden tools have revolutionized our understanding of early human behaviors. Amazingly these early humans demonstrated an ability to plan well in advance, a strong knowledge of the properties of wood, and many sophisticated woodworking skills that we still use today.

“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.”

Co-author Dirk Leder said: “The Schöningen humans used a spruce branch to make this aerodynamic and ergonomic tool. 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.”

High-Impact Weapon

Found in 1994, the 77 cm (30 inch) long stick is one of several different tools discovered in Schöningen, which includes throwing spears, thrusting spears, and another similarly sized throwing stick.

The double-pointed throwing stick – analyzed to an exceptionally high level of detail for this new study – was most likely used by early humans to hunt medium-sized game like red and roe deer, and possibly fast-small prey including hare and birds that were otherwise difficult to catch.

The throwing sticks would have been thrown rotationally – similar to a boomerang – rather than overhead like a modern-day javelin and may have enabled early humans to throw as far as 30 meters (100 feet). Although lightweight, the high velocities at which such weapons can be launched could have resulted in deadly high-energy impacts.

Intimate Connection Between the Tool and Its User

The fine surface, carefully shaped points, and polish from handling suggest this was a piece of personal kit with repeated use, rather than a quickly made tool that was carelessly discarded.

Principal investigator Thomas Terberger said: “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.”

The well-preserved stick is on display at the Forschungsmuseum in Schöningen.

Reference: “A double-pointed wooden throwing stick from Schöningen, Germany: Results and new insights from a multianalytical study” by Annemieke Milks, Jens Lehmann, Dirk Leder, Michael Sietz, Tim Koddenberg, Utz Böhner, Volker Wachtendorf and Thomas Terberger, 19 July 2023, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0287719

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