Remains of horses found at site of ancient spearheads

Stone knife. Photo: Christa S. Fuchs, Lower Saxony heritage preservation authority, Hannover.
Stone knife found at Schöningen. © Christa S. Fuchs, Lower Saxony heritage preservation authority, Hannover

The well-preserved remains of horses and other large mammals have been unearthed at a German site where spearheads dating back 300,000 years have been found, opening a tantalising window to the life of ancient man.

The Lower Palaeolithic excavation site in Schöningen, on the western terminal slope of an opencast lignite mine, has been the focus of archaeologists’ attention since the mid-1990s.

Dr Hartmut Thieme, of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology of Lower Saxony in Hannover, discovered eight surprisingly well preserved spears dated at 300,000 years ago. They are the oldest known hunting weapons in the world.

The find led to intense discussions about the abilities of ancient man in middle Europe.

The spears and other artifacts, as well as animal remains found at the site, show that their users were highly skilled craftsmen and hunters, well adapted to their environment, with a capacity for abstract thought and complex planning comparable to our own.

It is likely that they were members of the species homo heidelbergensis, although no human remains have yet been found at the site.

Since 2008 the excavation site has been run as a joint venture between the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology of Lower Saxony and the University of Tübingen.

One of the perfectly-preserved spears.
One of the perfectly-preserved spears. © Nicholas J. Conard, University of Tübingen.

The scientific head of the project is Professor Nicholas Conard, with the excavations being supervised by Dr Jordi Serangeli, both from the Institute of Prehistory.

Dr Jordi Serangeli
Dr Jordi Serangeli

Since 2010 the project has been supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Scientists hope the multidisciplinary approach will enable them to understand more about hominins and the ecology of the period around 300.000 years ago.

The bones of large mammals – horses, elephants, rhinoceroses, and lions – as well as the remains of amphibians, reptiles, shells and even beetles, have been excellently preserved at the site.

Pines, firs, and black alder trees are preserved complete with pine cones, as well as the leaves, pollen and seeds of surrounding flora.

Until the mining started 30 years ago, these finds were below the natural water table.

The archeologists say they are now carrying out “underwater archaeology without the water”.

The work continues almost all year round, and every day there is something new to document and recover.

Some of the most important finds of the past four years have been the skull of a water buffalo with remains from human activities, an almost completely preserved aurochs (one of the oldest in central Europe), and several concentrations of stone artifacts, bones and wood.

Excavator at the Schöningen lignite mine, August 2012. Photo: Jordi Serangeli, University of Tübingen.
Excavator at the Schöningen lignite mine. © Jordi Serangeli, University of Tübingen.

They allow the scientists to examine not just one excavation site but an entire landscape.

A research centre and museum, the Paläon, will be opened in 2013 to provide the public with information about the ongoing work in Schöningen.

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