A team of archaeologists from the University of Tübingen and the University of Liège has unearthed a well-preserved wooden throwing stick at the Middle Pleistocene open-air site at Schöningen in northern Germany.
The locality of Schöningen contains over 20 archaeological sites that date to the Middle Pleistocene and is well known for its exceptional preservation.
The newly-found throwing stick originates from the best-known of the sites, Schöningen 13 II-4, from which well-preserved throwing spears, a push lance and wooden tools of unknown function were unearthed in the 1990s.
“The chances of finding Paleolithic artifacts made of wood are normally zero,” said Professor Nicholas Conard, a researcher in the Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology and the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment at the University of Tübingen.
“But Schöningen, with its exceptional preservation, has yielded by far the largest and most important record wooden tools and hunting equipment from the Paleolithic.”
The throwing stick is 64.5 cm long including the small fragmented end, and has a mass of 264 grams.
The main piece has a length of 63.4 cm with a central and maximal diameter of 2.9 cm. The cross-section is asymmetrical with a round and a flatter side.
“The tool was carefully carved from the branch or the stem of a spruce tree (Picea sp.), the same wood used for 10 out of the 11 artifacts recovered from Schöningen 13 II-4 more than 20 years ago,” Professor Conard and colleagues said.
The researchers performed use-wear analysis of the artifact using a stereoscopic microscope with magnifications of up to 56.
“Use-wear analysis shows how the maker of the throwing stick used stone tools to cut the branches flush and then to smooth the surface of the artifact,” they said.
“The artifact preserves impact fractures and damage consistent with that found on ethnographic and experimental examples of throwing sticks.”
The team hypothesizes that hominins who lived at Schöningen — likely Homo heidelbergensis — used the newly-found weapon to hunt birds or smaller game or to hit larger game such as horses.
The tool could also have been used to herd large animals in a specific direction for subsequent killing at closer range with throwing or thrusting spears.
“The throwing stick demonstrates that the hominins of Schöningen used a range of different hunting gear including both close- and longer-range weaponry,” the scientists said.
“The use of multiple weapon systems is characteristic of all ethnographically documented hunters and gatherers, and throwing sticks such as this one would have been effective in combination with other weapons in hunting large, medium and small mammals, birds and perhaps fish. Only smaller game could have been hunted with throwing sticks alone.”
“The throwing stick provides evidence of the advanced hunting skills and technological sophistication of archaic hominins in Northern Europe during the third to last interglacial complex around 300,000 years ago,” they added.
“The more recent archaeological and ethnographic examples of throwing sticks demonstrate their use in diverse geographical areas and suggest that they had a wide distribution during the Paleolithic, even if they are, at present, known only from Schöningen.”
The discovery is described in a paper in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
N.J. Conard et al. 2020. A 300,000-year-old throwing stick from Schöningen, northern Germany, documents the evolution of human hunting. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 690-693; doi: 10.1038/s41559-020-1139-0
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