Scientists working in South Africa have unearthed the oldest-known spear tips, apparently made by a common ancestor of people and Neandertals around 500,000 years ago.
More than 200 stone points found at a site called Kathu Pan 1 display modifications and damage consistent with having been attached to spear handles and hurled at animal prey such as springbok, say Jayne Wilkins, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and her colleagues.
“These were close-range weapons, either thrusting spears or spears thrown from fairly short distances,” Wilkins says.
A description of the South African spear points appears in the Nov. 16 Science.
Human ancestors were regularly killing game by 780,000 years ago in the Middle East, as evidenced by remains of butchered deer carcasses. Until now, the earliest stone spear tips came from a Neandertal site in France dating to between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago. Wooden spears from 400,000 years ago have been found among the remains of butchered horses in Germany (SN: 3/1/97, p. 134).
Wilkins’ team determined an approximate age for the Kathu Pan 1 discoveries using a soil analysis method that estimates the time since artifacts were buried.
If the half-million-year-old age for the spear tips holds up, “the conclusion that Neandertals and Homo sapiens shared whatever mental abilities undergird hafted stone-tool technology seems reasonable,” remarks archaeologist John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York.
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