Ancient Arsenal Unearthed: 31,000-Year-Old Long-Distance Weapons Found in Belgium

Examples of Experimental Thrusting Spears and Javelins Armed With Replicas of the Archaeological Flint Points

Examples of experimental thrusting spears and javelins armed with replicas of the archaeological flint points. Credit: TraceoLab/ULiège

A study conducted by TraceoLab at the University of Liège has uncovered evidence suggesting the existence of long-distance weaponry 10,000 years earlier than previously estimated.

The hunter-gatherers who settled along the Haine River in southern Belgium 31,000 years ago were already using spearthrowers to hunt. This is the finding of a new study conducted at TraceoLab at the University of Liège.

The material found at the archaeological site of Maisières-Canal permits establishing the use of this hunting technique 10,000 years earlier than the oldest currently known preserved spearthrowers. This discovery, published in the journal Scientific Reports, is prompting archaeologists to reconsider the age of this important technological innovation.

Spearthrower: A Revolution in Hunting

The spearthrower is a weapon designed for throwing darts, which are large projectiles resembling arrows that generally measure over two metres long. Spearthrowers can propel darts over a distance of up to eighty meters.

Christian Lepers Preparing for a Spearthrower Shot

Christian Lepers preparing for a spearthrower shot during the experimentation conducted at TraceoLab. Credit: TraceoLab/ULiège

The invention of long-range hunting weapons has had significant consequences for human evolution, as it changed hunting practices and the dynamics between humans and their prey, as well as the diet and social organization of prehistoric hunter-gatherer groups. The date of invention and spread of these weapons has therefore long been the subject of lively debate within the scientific community.

Challenges in Weapon Identification

“Until now, the early weapons have been infamously hard to detect at archaeological sites because they were made of organic components that preserve rarely, explains Justin Coppe, researcher at TraceoLab. Stone points that armed ancient projectiles and that are much more frequently encountered at archaeological excavations have been difficult to connect to particular weapons reliably.”

Combination of Impact Traces on an Archaeological Artefact That Could Be Identified as a Spearthrower Dart Thanks to the Experiments

Combination of impact traces on an archaeological artifact that could be identified as a spearthrower dart thanks to the experiments. Credit: TraceoLab/ULiège

Most recently published claims for the early use of spearthrowers and bows in Europe and Africa have relied exclusively on projectile point size to link them to these weapon systems. However, ethnographic reviews and experimental testing have cast serious doubt on this line of reasoning by showing that arrow, dart, and spear tips can be highly variable in size, with overlapping ranges.

A Novel Approach in Archaeology

The innovative approach developed by the archaeologists at TraceoLab combines ballistic analysis and fracture mechanics to gain a better understanding of the traces preserved on the flint points.

“We carried out a large-scale experiment in which we fired replicas of Palaeolithic projectiles using different weapons such as spears, bows, and spearthrowers,” explains Noora Taipale, FNRS research fellow at TraceoLab. By carefully examining the fractures on these stone points, we were able to understand how each weapon affected the fracturing of the points when they impacted the target.”

Each weapon left distinct marks on the stone points, enabling archaeologists to match these marks to archaeological finds. In a way, it’s like identifying a gun from the marks the barrel leaves on a bullet, a practice known from forensic science.

The excellent match between the experimental spearthrower sample and the Maisières-Canal projectiles confirmed that the hunters occupying the site used these weapons. This finding encourages archaeologists to apply the method further to find out how ancient long-range weaponry really is. Future work at TraceoLab will focus on adjusting the analytical approach to other archaeological contexts to help reach this goal.

Reference: “Terminal ballistic analysis of impact fractures reveals the use of spearthrower 31 ky ago at Maisières-Canal, Belgium” by Justin Coppe, Noora Taipale and Veerle Rots, 25 October 2023, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-45554-w

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