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.