Making spears

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The oldest spears

Spears, during the stone age, were primo tools for dealing with the pangs of hunger or the perils of an attacking lion. And so both Homo sapiens and our Neanderthal relatives invented “hafted” tools — spears, darts and arrows.

But when?

This week, we learn that sharpened stones recovered from South Africa have many hallmarks of spear points — making them the oldest direct evidence for the use of spears with stone points.

Outline of South Africa with dot marking Kathu Pan 1 in northwestern part of country.

The study looked at artifacts from a seasonally wet location, says Jayne Wilkins, a Ph.D. candidate in archeology at the University of Toronto. “We are not able say whether it was a habitation site, but it would have been a source of water, a central location for foraging hominids, which probably explains why there was so much debris. The sinkhole was really deep, full of sediment and artifacts.”

Hominids are members of the complicated genetic lineage that produced humans – Homo sapiens.

The landowner had excavated the points in the 1980s, but not until 2010 did Michael Chazan, Wilkins’s advisor at Toronto, realize they were 500,000 years old. The site lay fallow for many years, Wilkins says. “People knew about the site, and recognized this as a very significant region, but there are not enough archeologists and too many cool sites.”


Side, front, and top view of a rock shaped into a point

Photo: Jayne Wilkins, University of Toronto
This spear point is one of many that shows evidence of being “hafted” — attached to a shaft from the Kathu Pan 1 site in South Africa. Scale bar = 1 centimeter.

The preponderance of the evidence

Any wooden shaft would have decayed long ago, and so the stones had to tell the story. The archeologists used this reasoning to conclude that they were spear points:

a few points were shaped at the rear to ease binding to the spear shaft

the size and shape were similar to younger spear points accepted by archeologists

the edges had more damage near the tips, indicating that the tools were thrown

both sides were equally sharp (a scraper or knife needs only one sharp side)

the points were symmetrical, even after repeated sharpening, further distinguishing them from scrapers and knives

“Probably the strongest evidence was the distribution of damage,” says Wilkins. “It would be pretty hard to get impact fractures without having [the tool] attached to something.”

To confirm their diagnosis, the scientists fashioned new spear points from the same stone, and fired them from a crossbow into an antelope carcass. “When we mapped out the breakage, our experiments produced more damage at the tip, and little flakes along the edge,” says Wilkins, closely matching the stone tools found in the sinkhole.

Game: It’s what’s for dinner

The previous record for a hafted spear — about 300,000 years old — came from two sites in Europe and Africa.

Our ancestors were killing large game 780,000 years ago, as evidenced by a site in Israel. Wooden spears 400,000 years old were found with butchered horses in Germany, and a carcass dating to 500,000 from the United Kingdom shows a circular wound in a bone, possibly made by a spear.

It’s not clear who made the South African stone points, Wilkins says, but it’s possible that the tool-makers were ancestors to modern humans and the Neanderthals; both groups that used spears with stone points.

The issue of when the lineage that led to humans began hafting stone tools “is a big deal, because it is not easy to attach a sharp piece of stone onto a sturdy wooden or bamboo shaft firmly,” says J. Mark Kenoyer, a professor of archeology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The tip needs to be attached in a way that it will not fall off on impact, and the hafting must be done so that it does not restrict the penetrating ability of the projectile.”


Three rocks shaped into spears, colored bright orange and tied to the end of sticks

Credit: Jayne Wilkins, University of Toronto
Sticks and stones can break my bones! These modern replicas were made to test the impact of wear-and-tear on ancient stone weapons.

The point of the spear


Two people sitting at round table with pointed rocks laid out in two arrays

Photo: Simen Oestmo
Extreme Makeover, Archeological Edition: Jayne Wilkins and Benjamin Schoville work with experimental tools that they will attach to wooden dowels using tree resin and sinew.

Anybody who has tried to sharpen stone knows the difficulty of chipping a stone to make an object with “a strong sharp tip, sharp gradually tapered and wider edges, with a thin and narrow base,” says Kenoyer, who teaches a class in indigenous technology. “Hafting itself requires understanding how to make a wooden or bamboo shaft with a split tip to hold the point. The shaft also has to be strong enough to withstand the stress of throwing or thrusting, and have a weight that is proportionate to the combined weight of the tip and the hafting materials. Attaching the point requires fibers as well as plant or mineral adhesives that start out soft but then get hard and hold the stone tip snugly with the shaft.”

All of this “reflects a highly developed intelligence,” Kenoyer adds, and “the ability to experiment with available raw materials and the equivalence of scientific thought processes. When hafting has become commonplace it demonstrates a mechanism to pass this knowledge on to the subsequent generation — the ability to think and to communicate effectively.”

But Kenoyer is not convinced that these were really points for a thrown weapon. “It is not been clearly demonstrated that they were for throwing from a long or short distance, and they could just as easily have been used for thrusting from close quarters. The ancient tools that are illustrated in the article do not show any side notching or other indications that they were hafted with minimal binding or adhesives, and the authors do not discuss the possible method of hafting that might have been used in the past.”

Another open question: were the spears used for hunting, defense — or fighting? “There is no way to say whether they were using them on each other,” says Wilkins. “That’s a possibility, or they could have been used to hunt game and also as protection against large animals, carnivores.”

— David J. Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; Emily Eggleston, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


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  4. Archeologists find advanced Stone Age techonology in South Africa