A remarkably preserved 300,000-year-old throwing stick has been unearthed, providing insights into a tool that scientists believe were used to startle or drive horses towards warriors waiting with spears, or to kill water birds.
Researchers say the throwing sticks, used by the extinct humans Homo heidelbergensis, form an important part of the evolution of hunting, and highlight the complexities involved in targeting prey.
The throwing stick was found by a team from the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment in Schöningen, Lower Saxony, Germany.
Research at Schöningen demonstrates that, 300,000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis used a combination of throwing sticks, spears and thrusting lances.
Professor Nicholas Conard and Dr Jordi Serangeli, who led the research team, attribute the exceptional discovery to the outstanding preservation of wooden artifacts in the water-saturated lakeside sediments in Schöningen.
The throwing stick was recovered in what is known as layer 13 II-4, which in the 1990s yielded examples of throwing spears, a thrusting lance and additional wooden tools of unknown function.
Like almost all of these finds, the new artifact was carefully carved from spruce wood.
The throwing stick is 64.5cm long, 2.9cm in diameter and weighs 264 grams.
The cross-section is asymmetrical with a round and a flatter side.
Use-wear analysis conducted by Veerle Rots from the University of Liège, Belgium, shows how the maker of the throwing stick used stone tools to cut the branches flush and then to smooth the surface of the artifact.
The artifact preserves impact fractures and damage consistent with that found on ethnographic and experimental examples of throwing sticks.
When in flight, throwing sticks rotate around their center of gravity, and do not return to the thrower, as is the case with boomerangs.
Instead, the rotation helps to maintain a straight, accurate trajectory while increasing the likelihood of striking prey animals.
Serangeli explains: “They are effective weapons at diverse distances and can be used to kill or wound birds or rabbits or to drive larger game, such as horses, that were killed and butchered in large numbers in the Schöningen lakeshore.”
Remains of swans and ducks are well-documented in the area.
Experiments show that throwing sticks of this size reach maximum speeds of 30 metres per second.
Dr Gerlinda Bigga, who studies the structure of wood used for tools, noted that studies from North America, Africa and Australia show that the range of such weapons varies from 5 to more than 100 metres.
“The chances of finding Paleolithic artifacts made of wood are normally zero,” Conard says. “Schöningen, with its exceptional preservation, has yielded by far the largest and most important record of wooden tools and hunting equipment from the Paleolithic.”
The find is described in a just-published report in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Excavations at Schöningen are funded by Germany’s Ministry of Science and Culture of the State of Niedersachsen. They are conducted in co-operation with the State Heritage Office of Lower Saxony.
Nicholas J. Conard, Jordi Serangeli, Gerlinde Bigga and Veerle Rots: “A 300,000-year-old throwing stick from Schöningen, northern Germany, documents the evolution of human hunting.” Nature Ecology & Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1139-0
The abstract of the brief communication can be read here.