Archery May Have Arrived in Europe Thousands of Years Earlier Than Thought

New archaeological research suggests Homo sapiens used bows and arrows 54,000 years ago in present-day France

Pair of hands holding an arrowhead on wooden dowel
Archaeologists created replica stone points, then experimented with them by firing them at a goat carcass using different methods. Ludovic Slimak

Archaeologists in France have unearthed evidence of the earliest bow-and-arrow use in Europe. Roughly 54,000 years ago, Homo sapiens living in a cave in the Rhône Valley likely used archery to hunt horses, bison or deer, according to research published this week in the journal Science Advances.

At Grotte Mandrin, a cave in southwestern France, researchers discovered hundreds of small, triangular stone points, and most showed signs of damage, suggesting they were somehow thrown, thrust or propelled.

The team suspected the stone points might have been arrowheads, so they put that theory to the test. They created weapons with flint tips that were replicas of the artifacts and fired them at a goat carcass. The points were most effective when attached to a bow, rather than propelled by a spear thrower or tossed by hand.

Tiny triangular piece of stone on fingertip
At Grotte Mandrin, archaeologists unearthed hundreds of tiny stone points that early modern humans likely used as arrowheads. Laure Metz / Ludovic Slimak

As Katie Hunt reports for CNN, some of the arrows fired with bows not only punctured the goat’s skin, but also passed all the way through the carcass to the other side. Some of the spears thrown by hand, meanwhile, did not even break the skin.

“We couldn’t throw them at the animals any other way than with a bow, because they were too tiny and too light to be efficient,” says study co-author Laure Metz, an archaeologist at Aix-Marseille University, to the Agence France-Presse’s Chris Lefkow. “We had to use this kind of propulsion. … The only way that it was working was with a bow.”

The findings are as convincing as possible, short of early humans “being caught bow-in-hand,” says Marlize Lombard, an archaeologist at the University of Johannesburg who was not involved in the study, to Science News’ Bruce Bower.

Close-up shot of small arrowheads
The replica arrowheads Ludovic Slimak

The researchers did not find remnants of bows at Grotte Mandrin. However, that is not surprising, nor is it a deal-breaker for the bow-and-arrow theory, reports Gizmodo’s Isaac Schultz.

“Archery technologies are essentially based on the use of perishable materials: wood, fibers, leather, resins and sinew, which are rarely preserved in European Paleolithic sites and make archaeological recognition of these technologies difficult,” Metz tells Gizmodo.

Past research suggests that the earliest bow-and-arrow hunting in the world took place in Africa roughly 70,000 years ago. It’s possible that Homo sapiens brought archery from Africa to Europe.

In Europe specifically, the previous oldest evidence for the use of bows and arrows dated to around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. This new research, then, suggests that bows and arrows were used about 40,000 years earlier in Europe than previously thought.

Grotte Mandrin is a unique archaeological site, because evidence found there suggests alternating groups of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens made it their home at different points in time. Researchers can discern this from the various layers of sediment inside the cave, which act as a timeline of sorts for understanding its inhabitants throughout history.

Archaeologists say Neanderthals first used the cave more than 80,000 years ago. Then, around 54,000 years ago, a group of modern humans moved in, but they only lived there for about 40 years. That short stint occurred about 10,000 years before researchers had previously thought Homo sapiens began spreading around Europe.

After the modern humans disappeared, Neanderthals once again lived in the cave for around 12,000 years. Then, modern humans reappeared once more.

Hand holding up a small triangular stone point
The tiny stone points came from a cave in present-day France that was inhabited by alternating groups of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Philippe Psaila

Though Neanderthals may have witnessed early humans using bows and arrows, it appears the early human relatives never adopted them and, instead, kept using stone-tipped spears that required close proximity to their intended target. Researchers aren’t sure why.

“When you have a bow and arrow, it’s more precise and less effort to use and easier to transport with you,” Metz tells CNN. “You can take many arrows with you—not just one or two spears to hold in your hand. You can shoot many of them in a very quick operation. All this and you can be alone hunting by yourself. … What is incredible to me is that [the Neanderthals] didn’t use, they didn’t develop, this type of weapon.”

It’s also unclear if their differences in weaponry somehow contributed to the Neanderthals disappearance around 40,000 years ago. It is possible, write the researchers in the paper, that the “technologies may have given modern humans a competitive advantage over local Neanderthal societies.”

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