Stone-Age arrows found
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Stone-Age arrows found

Dr Marlize Lombard, a researcher and lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
Dr Marlize Lombard, a researcher and lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), worked with a team of South African researchers and scientists under the leadership of Prof Lyn Wadley (University of the Witwatersrand (Wits)), who have unearthed 64, 000 year-old “stone tools”, believed to be the earliest direct evidence of human-made stone-tipped arrows. A bone point, that could have been an arrow tip was also excavated from the site and published in 2008 by Lucinda Backwell and colleagues from Wits.

The arrow heads were excavated from layers of very old sediment in Sibudu Cave, a sandstone cliff cave in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Closer inspection of the stone tools revealed remnants of blood, bone and other use-traces, that provided clues about how it were used.

According to Lombard the shape of the geometric pieces indicated where it had been impacted a nd damaged, and how they were hafted. “ This showed that the pieces were very likely to have been the tips of projectiles – rather than sharp points on the end of hand-held spears,” says Lombard.  

The arrow heads also contained traces of glue - plant-based resin that the scientists think was used to fasten them onto a wooden or reed shaft.

"The presence of glue implies that people were able to produce composite tools - tools where different elements produced from different materials are glued together to make a single artefact," says Lombard. 

According to Professor Larry Barham from the University of Liverpool "This is an indicator of a cognitively demanding behaviour."

The discovery, together with other evidence, pushes back the development of "bow and arrow technology" by at least 20,000 years.

The team’s findings were published, this week, in the journal Antiquity 84:635-648.

 Ancient engineering

Researchers are interested in early evidence of bows and arrows, as this type of weapons engineering could indicate technological and cognitive abilities of humans living at that time.

The researchers wrote in their findings paper: "Hunting with a bow and arrow requires intricate multi-staged planning, material collection and tool preparation and implies a range of innovative social and communication skills."

Lombard explained that her ultimate aim was to explore the "big question": When did we start to think in the same way that we do now?”

"Together with additional evidence from Sibudu produced by Prof Wadley and her team, and other South African sites such as Blombos, under the direction of Prof Chris Henshilwood, we are becoming more and more confident that 60-70,000 years ago, in Southern Africa, people were behaving, on a cognitive level, very similarly to us."

Professor Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London said the work added to the view that modern humans in Africa 60,000 years ago had begun to hunt in a "new way".

Neanderthals and other early humans, he explained, were likely to have been "ambush predators", who needed to get close to their prey in order to dispatch them.

Professor Stringer said: "This work further extends the advanced behaviours inferred for early modern people in Africa. But the long gaps in the subsequent record of bows and arrows may mean that regular use of these weapons did not come until much later.”

"Indeed, the concept of bows and arrows may even have had to be reinvented many millennia [later]."

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