Early humans were lashing stone tips to wooden handles to make spears and knives about 200,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a study in the 16 November issue of Science.
Attaching stone points to handles, or “hafting,” was an important technological advance that made it possible to handle or throw sharp points with much more power and control. Both Neandertals and early Homo sapiens made hafted spear tips, and evidence of this technology is relatively common after about 200,000 to 300,000 years ago.
Jayne Wilkins of the University of Toronto and colleagues present multiple lines of evidence implying that stone points from the site of Kathu Pan 1 in South Africa were hafted to form spears around 500,000 years ago. The points’ damaged edges and marks at their base are consistent with the idea that these points were hafted spear tips.
A ~500,000-year-old retouched point from Kathu Pan 1. The scale bar is 1 cm long. | Image courtesy of Jayne Wilkins
The authors also tested the possibility by creating replicas of these points, hafting them to wooden dowels, and then launching them at springbok carcasses. The points performed well and adequately penetrated the target, the researchers report.
“The archaeological points have damage that is very similar to replica spear points used in our spearing experiment,” Wilkins said. “This type of damage is not easily created through other processes.”
Because the points are from sediment layers dated to roughly 500,000 years ago, it appears that the common ancestor of Neandertals and Homo sapiens, commonly thought to be Homo heidelbergensis, was the first to develop hafting technology.
“It now looks like some of the traits that we associate with modern humans and our nearest relatives can be traced further back in our lineage,” Wilkins said.
Read the abstract, “Evidence for Early Hafted Hunting Technology,” by Jayne Wilkins and colleagues.
Listen to a Science Podcast about the research.