By analyzing a 300,000-year-old hunting weapon discovered in 1994 in Schöningen in Germany, a team of researchers led by the University of Reading in the UK has shed new light on early humans as woodworking masters.
According to the experts, this double-pointed wooden throwing stick was scraped, seasoned, and sanded before being used as a hunting weapon for animals. This suggests that early humans’ woodworking techniques were much more sophisticated than previously thought.
The painstaking creation of such lightweight weapons may have enabled group hunts of small and medium animals, and is likely to have involved entire communities, including children.
“Discoveries of wooden tools have revolutionized our understanding of early human behaviors. Amazingly these early humans demonstrated an ability to plan well in advance, a strong knowledge of the properties of wood, and many sophisticated woodworking skills that we still use today,” said study lead author Annemieke Milks, an archeologist at Reading.
“These lightweight throwing sticks may have been easier to launch than heavier spears, indicating the potential for the whole community to take part. Such tools could have been used by children while learning to throw and hunt.”
“The Schöningen humans used a spruce branch to make this aerodynamic and ergonomic tool. The woodworking involved multiple steps including cutting and stripping off the bark, carving it into an aerodynamic shape, scraping away more of the surface, seasoning the wood to avoid cracking and warping, and sanding it for easier handling,” added co-author Dirk Leder, an expert in Paleolithic Archaeology and Cognitive Evolution at the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage.
The 77-centimeter-long stick is one of several tools discovered in Schöningen, including throwing spears, thrusting spears, and another similarly sized throwing stick.
The double-pointed throwing stick was likely used by early humans to hunt both small prey such as difficult-to-catch hares or birds and medium-sized game like red and roe deer.
Such sticks would have been launched rotationally, like a boomerang, instead of overhead such as a modern-day javelin, and could have enabled hunters to throw as far as 30 meters.
Although this weapon is lightweight, the high velocity with which it can be launched would likely result in deadly high-energy impacts.
Moreover, its carefully shaped points and polish resulting from handling suggest that the stick was a weapon with repeated use rather than a quickly made tool that was carelessly discarded after hunts.
“The systematic analysis of the wooden finds of the Schöningen site financed by the German Research Foundation provides valuable new insights and further exciting information on these early wooden weapons can be expected soon,” concluded senior author Thomas Terberger, an expert in Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology at the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage.
Wooden tools and evidence of advanced woodworking have been in use for thousands of years, dating back to early human history. They are typically associated with the Stone Age, a prehistoric period during which stone was widely used to make tools.
However, it is important to note that due to the nature of organic materials, very few early wooden tools have survived to the present day, making it hard for archaeologists to definitively state when or how they were used.
One of the earliest forms of wooden tools likely included sharpened sticks used for digging. They could have been used to dig for water, roots, and tubers, or to prepare the ground for planting.
Early wooden spears would have been used for hunting. The Schöningen spears, discovered in Germany and dating back nearly 400,000 years, are an example of early wooden hunting tools.
Wood was instrumental in the creation of early fire-making tools, such as the hand-drill and the bow drill.
Wood would have been used to create blunt-force weapons or tools, such as clubs. Batons might have been used for various purposes like signalling, ceremonial purposes, or possibly for processing food.
Evidence of early wooden boats or canoes have been found dating back thousands of years. The Pesse canoe, discovered in the Netherlands, is thought to be one of the world’s oldest known boats.
While stone, bone, and later metal might have been used for the business end of a tool, wood was often used to form the handle due to its shapeability and relative ease of use.