Spears Point to Early European Hunters

Several heavy wooden spears unearthed in northern Germany provide the first concrete evidence that early humans in Europe were active hunters of large animals and offer a window into the lives of Europeans about 400,000 years ago. In today's issue of Nature, archaeologist Hartmut Thieme of the Lower Saxony Office for Heritage Preservation reports finding the remarkably well-preserved weapons, along with flint artifacts and thousands of animal bones, in a coal mine in Schöningen, 100 kilometers east of Hannover.

Because wood is not ordinarily preserved for so long, "these finds provide a wonderful look at a normally invisible aspect of Paleolithic technology," says archaeologist Steve Kuhn of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Until now, the oldest wooden spear from Europe is one dated to 125,000 years ago, found in 1948 between the ribs of an elephant skeleton in Lehringen, only 100 km from the Schöningen site. Thieme says that the spears indicate that premodern humans were more ingenious than many believe.

Found buried 10 meters underground in the mine, the artifacts are strikingly well preserved because they were submerged continuously in watery mud for many millennia, and no oxygen permeated the site, says Thieme. The three spears described in the Nature paper were made from the trunks of small spruce trees, no more than about 5 centimeters in diameter and about 2 meters long. Thieme says the spears' center of gravity is just like that of a javelin, indicating they were "throwing spears," used for killing horses, whose bones litter the site. Other items found nearby include a meter-long stick sharpened at each end, possibly a "throwing stick," also for killing animals, and shorter sticks with notches that might have been made to hold pieces of flint, which, if so, Thieme reports, would make them "the oldest composite tools yet discovered."

The tools were roughly dated to an interglacial period 400,000 years ago by correlating the surrounding sediments to well-known geologic layers. "In that part of the world, they really have the climate and geologic sequences worked out," says Kuhn. "You have to believe them." Because there is little artifactual evidence of humans from this era, archaeologists have been divided over whether they were hunters; one popular school of thought envisioned these people as mostly scavenging their meat. Now, says Thieme, for "the first time in this period ... we have proved very specific, very sophisticated hunting techniques."

The hunters were probably archaic Homo sapiens, likely extremely sturdy individuals able to wield such cumbersome weapons, says Thieme; the rugged thigh bone of such an individual has been found at Boxgrove, a 500,000-year-old site in England. But whoever made the spears, they are the kind of discovery that "leaves one speechless," writes archaeologist Robin Dennell, of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, in an accompanying commentary in Nature. And the finds aren't over yet: Thieme says he found a fourth spear just last week.