300,000-year-old throwing stick shows early humans’ advanced woodworking skills

A groundbreaking study has shed new light on the ancient capabilities of early humans as skilled woodworkers. The research focuses on a remarkable hunting weapon, a double-pointed wooden throwing stick, which was discovered in Schöningen, Germany, around thirty years ago. Detailed state-of-the-art analysis revealed that this ancient tool was meticulously crafted through a series of processes, including scraping, seasoning, and sanding, before being utilized for hunting and killing animals.

Published in PLOS ONE, the findings challenge previous assumptions and highlight that early humans’ woodworking techniques were far more advanced and sophisticated than previously thought. Moreover, the study suggests that the creation of lightweight weapons may have facilitated group hunts of medium and small animals. This innovation potentially allowed the entire community, including children, to participate in hunting activities.

Dr. Annemieke Milks, who led the research at the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology, expressed that wooden tool discoveries have transformed our comprehension of early human behaviors. The remarkable abilities demonstrated by these ancient humans included long-term planning, a deep understanding of wood properties, and various sophisticated woodworking skills that continue to be relevant even today.

The lightweight throwing sticks likely proved easier to handle and launch compared to heavier spears, indicating that they were accessible to the entire community, possibly even used by children while learning hunting skills.

Co-author Dirk Leder emphasized the remarkable craftsmanship of the Schöningen humans, as they used spruce branches to create aerodynamic and ergonomic tools. The process involved multiple steps, such as cutting, bark removal, carving into an aerodynamic shape, further refining the surface, seasoning the wood to prevent damage, and finally, sanding it for improved handling.

Schonigen double pointed wooden throwing stick. Credit: Volker Minkus

High-impact weapon

Discovered in 1994, the 77cm-long stick is one of several fascinating tools found in Schöningen, Germany. Among the discoveries are throwing spears, thrusting spears, and another similar-sized throwing stick. However, the double-pointed throwing stick analyzed in this new study stands out due to its exceptionally detailed examination.

Experts believe that this ancient tool was primarily used by early humans to hunt medium-sized animals like red and roe deer. Additionally, it may have been employed to catch fast and elusive prey such as hares and birds. The throwing sticks were thrown in a rotational manner, akin to boomerangs, rather than the overhead technique used for modern-day javelins. This rotational throwing style allowed early humans to achieve impressive distances, potentially reaching up to 30 meters. Despite being lightweight, these weapons could deliver deadly high-energy impacts due to their high velocities.

The stick’s well-crafted surface, carefully shaped points, and evidence of polishing from frequent handling suggest that it was a cherished personal tool, rather than a hastily made and disposable item.

According to principal investigator Thomas Terberger, the systematic analysis of the wooden artifacts from the Schöningen site, funded by the German Research Foundation, has provided valuable insights. He anticipates that further exciting information about these early wooden weapons will emerge soon.

Today, the exceptionally well-preserved throwing stick is proudly exhibited at the Forschungsmuseum in Schöningen, offering a remarkable glimpse into the woodworking skills and hunting practices of our ancient ancestors.

Source: University of Reading

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