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Human Ancestors Made Deadly Stone-Tipped Spears 500,000 Years Ago

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Reproductions of ancient spears

Replicas of the 500,000-year-old stone points from Kathu Pan 1 were hafted onto wooden dowels with acacia resin and sinew, and plunged into antelope carcasses. The resulting edge damage was consistent with the edge damage on the ancient stone points. Image: Courtesy of Jayne Wilkins

Human ancestors were fashioning sophisticated hunting weapons half a million years ago. An analysis of stone points from a site in South Africa called Kathu Pan 1 indicates that they were attached to shafts of wood and used as spears. The finding pushes the earliest appearance of hafted multicomponent tools back by some 200,000 years.

Previous discoveries had hinted at the potential antiquity of this technology.  Based on evidence that both early modern humans and our closest relatives, the Neandertals, made stone-tipped spears, some researchers hypothesized that their common ancestor—a species called Homo heidelbergensis–shared this know-how. At half a million years old, the newfound stone points are old enough to be the handiwork of this common ancestor.

Kathu Pan 1 stone point

Stone point from the site of Kathu Pan 1 in South Africa reveals that human ancestors were making hafted weapons 500,000 years ago. Image: Courtesy of Jayne Wilkins

No wooden shafts were preserved at Kathu Pan 1, but marks on the bases of the stone points and fractures on their tips were consistent with hafting and impact, respectively. Furthermore the edge damage on the ancient points matched up with damage obtained experimentally when new points made from the same raw material as the old ones were hafted onto wooden dowels and thrusted into antelope carcasses. Jayne Wilkins of the University of Toronto and her colleagues describe the work in the November 16 Science.

These new findings follow on the heels of last week’s revelation that bow-and-arrow technology is older than previously thought and add to a growing body of evidence that, on the whole, our long-ago predecessors were more innovative than they are often given credit for. Stay tuned—more on this theme to come.


Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Stue Potts 5:12 pm 11/15/2012

    Hmmm…Time to redefine the world’s oldest profession as weapons development.

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  2. 2. Happy Hal 8:51 pm 11/15/2012

    Half a million years from the neolithic to now, eh? Perhaps in the very long interval, there has been another race, which either died out, or, before the last ice age, fled to another world, and the supposed astronauts are creature/humans returning to see if we’ve evolved, again,

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  3. 3. phalaris 2:30 am 11/16/2012

    The finds seems to be coming so thick-and-fast, it’s difficult to keep up with it.
    But it’s fascinating stuff – many thanks Kate for passing on the hot news.

    Where the picture can easily be changed by a single find, one really should hold back with interpretation. But I can’t help myself either, and my take is that things are moving back to seeing human development as a continuum.

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  4. 4. jgrosay 4:44 pm 11/16/2012

    If they made arrows, they were surely humans, but the question remains that the current Y chromosome and mtDNA point to a single couple origin for the current mankind in Africa, not much older than 100’000 years. It was shown than Europeans, that are genetically closer to the rest of the world pulation than to Africans, and an African from a place in this continent has more genetical differences to another African elsewhere than an European to a native American, some point even to a different DNA replicating machinery in Africans as to the rest of mankind, Europeans would have genetic remains from Neanderthals and other early humans, but none of them seem having passed their Y chromosome DNA or their mtDNA to modern humans. What happened to these old humans, and who were they?

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  5. 5. doncheech 7:53 pm 11/16/2012

    500,000 years later our number one human legacy is still killing with weapons.

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  6. 6. Dredd 2:11 pm 11/17/2012

    Two comments upthread ["The finds seems to be coming so thick-and-fast, it’s difficult to keep up with it" (phalaris) and "500,000 years later our number one human legacy is still killing with weapons" (doncheech)] remind me of the recent finds concerning “intelligence”, and the expanding scientific meaning of that word.

    Perhaps we are making things difficult for ourselves by only considering .00004% (.5 million yrs ago [spears]/ 13.75 billion yrs ago [Big Bang]) of the time evolution is said to have been operational?

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  7. 7. rock johny 10:22 pm 11/18/2012

    As a person that believes in evolution → of God’s designs over the millenia, it is obvious that God created many smart quasi-ape species along the way with some approaching the intelligence of ‘us’. When he created Adam & Eve he made a stark departure in creating them “in our image” or iows with ‘spirituality’ → a basic connection to those in Heaven with higher purpose and qualities like love & wisdom. Prior humanoids were comparably animalistic with no relationship to their creator (or innate desire for one)…but not necessarily ‘stupid’.

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  8. 8. jvanda1 1:45 pm 11/19/2012

    The true significance of these sorts of finds is the real question. Certainly our early ancestors also had early ancestors. Now we know they made crude tools, but what does that really tell us? Monkey’s and use sticks to dig for insects…How much of a leap to sharpening a stone and affixing it to a handle is that? I’m not suggesting it is not important, only the degree of importance.

    To to colleague above who mentioned that Europeans have more genetic relatedness to other modern humans than most African populations…While true, this is most likely an example of evolution through geographic isolation. Africans are still more closely related to early humans (non-Neanderthal hominids) than are Europeans. As to to lack of whole genetic blueprints, again we are seeing natural selection weeding out traits that are no longer benificial. The remnants are still there, but you would not expect whole chromosomes or mtDNA to remain intact throughout the millennial.

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  9. 9. dadster 1:40 pm 03/12/2013

    If humans were so clever , why did it take so much time to discover electricity after discovery of wheels and stone age weapons ? Why did it take so long to use mathematics as a tool of science ? Even after Plato , ot took an inordinately long period of time to discover computers or space travel for example . WHY ?
    What’s going on here ? Did it need certain temperature and pressure for the universe or the earth to attain before these scientific discoveries could take place ? Had the solar system to reach certain area in space- time to trigger or quicken a human like Newton , to enunciate his laws of motion ? What triggered all of a sudden , as it were , Einstein’s brain to discover Relativity theory of which no modern man of his time , let alone the ancient cave man had no inkling of an idea ? Mathematical models were built to fit physical begin with but later these models could delve deeper into physical phenomena. .it’s a symbiotic relationship between maths and phenomena . The two working at tandem could help us to decipher even non-material phenomena like, mind and quantum entanglements , dark energy , many relevant non- material characteristics of the fabric of space- time etc. The distinction between bio- intelligence and non- bio- intelligence is becoming smaller and smaller that the extinction of bio- intelligence might not even be noticed . But it’s like we are able suddenly to unscramble the mysteries of the universe in a burst of phenomenal intellectual energy in the last 600 years or so only ! Why did it take so long for this volcanic eruption of awareness to happen ? When did we reach the critical mass for the intellectual chain reaction to get activated ? Is there a randomness or chanciness or a spontaneity about it ? So much happening in the last 600 years or so that had not happened in the 600 million years before that ? Why ? That’s something to WONDER about !

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