Butchered horses, spears and tools show extent of ancient hunting culture

A reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis. Photo: Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez, from Asturias, Spain CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
A reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis. Photo: Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez, from Asturias, Spain CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ancient spears and the butchered remains of horses recovered from a paleolithic site in Germany show an elaborate hunting culture among humans 300,000 years ago.

A series of research papers published online in the Journal of Human Evolution delve into what appears to have been a hunting hub for the ancient humans who used the area — most likely early Neanderthals or Homo heidelbergensis. The site was most probably on the shoreline of an ancient lake in north-central Germany.

The Schöningen site, on the edge of an open-cast mine, has provided archaeologists with a wealth of ancient offerings, including at least 10 carefully made wooden spears and 12,000 animal bones. The remains of up to 25 horses have drawn particular interest, with bone marks indicating they were butchered. One horse pelvis even had a spear protruding from it.

The site has also yielded 1500 stone artifacts.

Ongoing research into the Schöningen material, recovered in archaeological excavations from 1995 led by Hartmut Thieme, continue to provide fresh insights into the lives of the ancient humans.

Nicholas Conard and his colleagues, writing in one of the papers, said the Schöningen finds brought the debate about hunting versus scavenging to an end. They also ended arguments about the purportedly primitive behavior of H. heidelbergensis and Neanderthals.

They said research showed that late H. heidelbergensis or early Neanderthals used sophisticated artifacts made from plant and animal materials, as well as stone tools more typically recovered from Lower Paleolithic sites.

The finds provided new insights into the technology and behavioral patterns of hominins about 300,000 years ago on the Northern European Plain, they wrote.

“An analysis of the finds from Schöningen and their contexts shows that the inhabitants of the site were skilled hunters at the top of the food chain and exhibited a high level of planning depth.

“These hominins had command of effective means of communication about the here and now, and the past and the future, that allowed them to repeatedly execute well-coordinated and successful group activities that likely culminated in a division of labor and social and economic patterns radically different from those of all non-human primates.”

The Schöningen finds had led to a paradigm shift on views of human evolution during the late Lower Paleolithic, they said.

Simon Parfitt and his colleagues, in another paper, described 88 bone tools recovered from the site, including many long-bone shaft fragments, mostly from horses, three ribs used to resharpen flint tools (retouchers), and another horse-based bone used as an anvil in shaping stone tools.

Analysis of the stone tools had shown exhaustive resharpening to maintain functional cutting edges, they noted.

“Whereas the flint tools were brought to the site, curated, and maintained, the retouchers had a shorter use-history and were either discarded after a limited period or broken to extract marrow.”

Longer horse and bison bones with flaked and rounded ends were believed to be used as hammers to break marrow bones. Several of them were also used in helping to shape stone tools. These, they said, constitute the earliest evidence of multi-purpose bone tools in the archaeological record.

“Our results highlight the advanced knowledge in the use of bones as tools during the Lower Paleolithic,” they said.

Other researchers identified what they described as a robust and repetitive technological strategy among the inhabitants of the region.

Thijs van Kolfschoten, who examined the larger mammal remains at the site with Elfi Buhrs and Ivo Verheijen, said they were exceptionally well-preserved as they were embedded in anaerobic, waterlogged sediments where the groundwater was rich in calcium carbonate.

Carnivore bones included those from the saber-toothed cat, fox, and wolf. Herbivores were represented by an elephant species, two equid species, two rhinoceros species, two cervid species, and two large bovid species.

The large horse, Equus mosbachensis, dominated the larger mammal record and played a major role in hominin subsistence, they said in their paper.

“Marks on the horse bones indicate that a large number of carcasses have been butchered,” they said.

Traces on the fossil remains of both red deer and the large bovids also indicate exploitation by those who used the area.

Mareike Stahlschmidt and her colleagues, in another paper, found that there was no convincing evidence for human use or control of fire.

The abstracts for the papers can be read here


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2 thoughts on “Butchered horses, spears and tools show extent of ancient hunting culture

  • December 13, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    If the researchers couldn’t find any sign of fire pits or ashes they must have eaten the meat raw. From what I understand it is thought that the eating of meat is what helped to enlarge the human brain to the size of what we have today.

  • June 2, 2018 at 8:20 am

    There’s evidence that they did have fire and even built shelters. Furthermore, the archaeologists thought they’d found hearths at the site, but this has supposedly been disproven. The strongest evidence in my opinion that they had both the knowledge to make and use fire is that the tips of the spears had been fire hardened.


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