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300,000-Year-Old Stick Suggests Human Ancestors Were Skilled Hunters

The ancient throwing stick may have been used by Neanderthals or an even earlier hominin

An artist's rendering of two early hominins hunting waterfowl on the Schöningen lakeshore with throwing sticks (Benoit Clarys / University of Tübingen)
smithsonianmag.com

A recently unearthed, 300,000-year-old wooden stick may have once been thrown by extinct human ancestors hunting wild game, according to new research.

On the surface, the find—a short, pointy piece of brown wood loosed from the mud—sounds drab.

“It’s a stick, sure,” Jordi Serangeli, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen and co-author of the study, tells the New York Times’ Nicholas St. Fleur. But calling it “just a stick,” he says, would be like calling humanity’s first step on the moon “only dirt with a print.”

As the researchers report in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, the ancient wood was likely a throwing stick used by either Neanderthals or their even more ancient relatives, Homo heidelbergensis, to kill quarry like waterfowl and rabbits.

Archaeologists found the roughly two-foot long, half-pound throwing stick while conducting excavations in Schöningen, Germany, in 2016. To date, the site has yielded a trove of prehistoric weapons, including wooden spears and javelins thought to be the oldest ever discovered. This latest find adds to the ancient arsenal unearthed at Schöningen—and underscores the sophistication of early hominins as hunters and toolmakers.

“We can show that already 300,000 years ago, not only are these late Homo heidelbergensis or very early Neanderthals at the top of the food chain,” Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at University of Tübingen and the study’s lead author, tells the Times, “but they also have a whole range of important technological skills they can use to make sure they can feed themselves and lead their lives.”

Schöningen is unique among archaeological sites in its ability to preserve wooden objects, which typically rot as millennia pass. Because the site was once a lake shore, its muddy sediment formed an airtight seal around wood and bone, protecting the materials from degradation. Tools made of bone, as well as the butchered remains of horses, have also been excavated at Schöningen.

Throwing stick in situ
The throwing stick in situ at the time of discovery (Alexander Gonschior / University of Tübingen)

When the researchers unearthed the stick at the center of the new paper, they realized it bore a resemblance to a 1994 find alternatively interpreted as a child’s spear, a tool for scraping bark and a root digger, according to the Times.

Veerle Rots, a paleoarchaeologist at the University of Liège of Belgium, decided to take a closer look. Both ends of the stick are pointed, which could suggest use as a small spear, but as Rots tells the Times, that wasn’t the case here.

“Throwing sticks are pointed at both ends, but that’s actually for the flight trajectory, it’s not for piercing,” she says.

Analysis conducted by Rots revealed damage from apparent impacts similar to the kind seen on other throwing sticks.

“They are effective weapons at diverse distances and can be used to kill or wound birds or rabbits or to drive larger game, such as the horses that were killed and butchered in large numbers in the Schöningen lakeshore,” explains Serangeli in a statement.

Annemieke Milks, a paleoarchaeologist from University College London who wasn’t involved in the study, tells the Times that the finding “helps us to build a picture of the diversity of hunting technologies available to Eurasian Middle Pleistocene hominins.”

But Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, a paleoarchaeologist at Germany’s Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum who wasn’t involved in the study, tells the Times that the wooden tool may not be a throwing stick. She says the scars near the object’s center are not what she would expect to see in throwing sticks, which she argues tend to concentrate damage near their tips.

Rots disagrees, per the Times, and her team plans to conduct tests aimed at proving that throwing sticks accumulate damage along their entire length.

Past experiments have shown that throwing sticks of roughly this size can reach speeds of 98 feet per second and perform effectively from upward of 300 feet away, depending on the skill and strength of the thrower.

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