Composite projectile weapons dating back as far as 280,000 years ago in Ethiopia?

Being able to hunt by throwing stone-tipped projectiles is generally seen as a crucial step in the successful spread of Homo sapiens. While organic spears are already present ca. 300,000 years ago in Schöningen (Germany) their exact method of use is still open for debate. A 2012 paper in Science identified stone-tipped spears at the site of Kathu Pan (South Africa) around 500,000 years ago, but these seem to relate to thrusting and more importantly the age of the site still remains controversial. A recent paper published in PlosOne, now claims to have more solid evidence for the use of composite projectiles more than 280,000 years ago.

Reconstructions of stone-tipped spears;Photograph: Jayne Wilkins

The Gademotta ridge in Ethiopa contains several archaeological sites within a stratigraphy containing several palaeosols and volcanic ash units. Argon dating of the lower tephra layer indicates an age of 279,000 ± 2,000 BP, making the underlying archaeological layer older than this. Over 44,000 lithic artefacts were recovered from this Gademotta formation, the majority made on obsidian. It includes 266 pointed tools, including Levallois points, Mousterian points and bifacial points. The authors used different methods to analyse the use of these points: micro- and macrofracture, edge damage, morphometrics and fracture velocity. Several pieces from the oldest layer, which is assigned to the MSA, have velocity values beyond the expected established values for thrusting spears and/or indicate microscope or macroscopic damage. The authors therefore stipulate they must have been the tips of javelins. This technology is claimed, therefore, to predate the emergence of Homo sapiens and indicate the behavioural complexity of the MSA.

However, debates on how to identify projectile damage (see recent paper by Rots and Plisson) are far from solved and further studies are needed to assess the importance of this technique in hominin subsistence strategies.

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