Ronald Cole-Turner: Transcending Evolution

Credit: Jayne Wilkins

Stone-Tipped Weapons: Older Than We Thought

Stone-tipped spears have been around for at least 500,000 years, according to new research. That is about 200,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Why is that important? In part because it suggests that modern humans did not invent this technology. They did not get it from the Neanderthals, nor did Neanderthals get it from modern humans. Instead, it now seems that Neanderthals and modern humans both used stone-tipped spears because both inherited this technology from an earlier form of human life.

It is generally believed that Neanderthals and modern humans diverged about 500,000 years ago. The current view is that both came from earlier humans known as Homo heidelbergensis.

"Rather than being invented twice, or by one group learning from the other, stone-tipped spear technology was in place much earlier," according to Benjamin Schoville, who co-authored the study and is affiliated with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University. "Although both Neandertals and humans used stone-tipped spears, this is the first evidence that this technology originated prior to or near the divergence of these two species," Schoville said, according to a press release from his university.

"This changes the way we think about early human adaptations and capacities before the origin of our own species," said Jayne Wilkins, a lead author from the University of Toronto. Technological advance—in this case, stone-tipped spears—is now seen as more widely shared among the various forms of humanity and not so confined to anatomically modern humans like us. Creating stone-tipped spears requires more forethought and care than simpler stone tools, especially in preparing the tips for mounting to the wooden shaft of the spear. This process is called “hafting,” and the result is that a more efficient hunting weapon is created.

In this study, researchers re-examined stone points discovered more than 30 years ago. By comparing the damage to the spear tips with simulated damage re-created under laboratory conditions, researchers found evidence that strongly supports the view that the original tips were used for spears.

"When points are used as spear tips, there is a lot of damage that forms at the tip of the point, and large distinctive fractures form. The damage on these ancient stone spear points is remarkably similar to those produced with our calibrated crossbow experiment, and we demonstrate they are not easily created from other processes," said co-author Kyle Brown, a skilled stone tool replicator from the University of Cape Town.

Brown, along with others who worked on the current paper, also collaborated on a study just released describing further stone weapons refinements that occurred about 70,000 years ago and probably gave modern humans an advantage over Neaderthals.

A version of this post first appeared on Enhancing Theology.

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