What’s so special about a 300,000-year-old stick stuck in the muck?
“It’s a stick, sure,” said Jordi Serangeli, an archaeologist from the University of Tübingen in Germany. But to dismiss it as such, he added, would be like calling Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon “only dirt with a print.”
That’s because the short, pointed piece of wood his team found in Schöningen, Germany, in 2016 may be the newest addition to the hunting arsenal used by extinct human ancestors during the Middle Pleistocene. It was probably a throwing stick that was hurled like a non-returning boomerang, spinning through the air before striking birds, rabbits or other prey.
When, in 1995, the Schöningen spears were discovered they pierced the debate over whether our early human relatives in Europe were simple scavengers incapable of crafting hunting tools. The throwing stick discovery adds to evidence that early hominins in our lineage were intelligent enough to prepare weapons and communicate together to topple prey. The paper was published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
“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,” said Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the university, “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.”
Their colleague, Martin Kursch, an excavator at the site, found the stick, which was about half the size of a pool cue and weighed about half a pound. It differed from thrusting spears and javelins because it was much shorter, and slightly curved.
Dr. Conard noticed the wood piece resembled a short stick found in 1994 by Hartmut Thieme, the archaeologist who showcased the Schöningen spears. Dr. Thieme had called his find a “throwing stick” but lacked evidence to support his claim. Other researchers interpreted it as a child’s spear, a root digger or a bark peeler.
“I remember picking it up, and I was afraid it would just fall apart, it was kind of terrifying,” Dr. Conard said. “But in fact it wasn’t like that at all. To the touch it was solid.”
They placed the stick in a cool, dark water bath to keep it moist and protected from microbes. Gerlinde Bigga, an archaeobotanist at the university, analyzed its cell structure and found it was carved from a solid piece of spruce.
“You could harm some animals with that,” Dr. Bigga said.
Next, Veerle Rots, a paleoarchaeologist at the University of Liège in Belgium, examined it to determine its purpose.
“If you look at the piece you could perhaps think it’s a mini spear, but that’s not the case,” said Dr. Rots. “Throwing sticks are pointed at both ends, but that’s actually for the flight trajectory, it’s not for piercing.” Similar features are seen in certain Aboriginal Tasmanian throwing sticks.
Dr. Rots found a large gash near the stick’s center, which suggested it had struck something.
“It was very exciting for me to see there was impact evidence, and I could make a case that it was a throwing stick,” she said.
Annemieke Milks, a paleoarchaeologist from the University College London, who was not involved with the study, said 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, was not convinced. Had the wooden tool been a throwing stick, she would have expected to see significant scars on its tips rather than near its center.
Dr. Rots disagreed, saying any part of the flying stick could have struck a target. Her team plans to perform ballistic testing with a wooden recreation to demonstrate that the throwing stick was a dangerous weapon for early hominin hunters.