Ancient arrows a clue to the past

Bone arrows of Bushman origin secured
with sinew to reed shafts.
(Image: Lucinda Backwell, Discovery Channel)

Janine Erasmus

Palaeontological researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand have identified bone implements discovered in KwaZulu-Natal as early tools and weapons used by inhabitants of the area about 60 000 years ago.

Two of the bone tools were fashioned into pointed implements and one looked like a polished spatula-shaped implement. Expert opinion is that if one of the pointed bones is substantiated by future discoveries as indeed being an arrow point, this will take the origin of bow and bone arrow technology to at least 20 000 years earlier than originally thought.

Middle Stone Age expert Professor Lyn Wadley of Wits University’s School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, and Dr Lucinda Backwell of the Wits School of Geosciences, who is a specialist in early hominid bone tool industries, worked with archaeologist Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux to analyse the three bone fragments found in the Sibudu Cave about 40 km north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. Their findings were subsequently accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science earlier in 2008.

“According to this discovery, the oldest bows and bone arrows are now dated to just over 60 000 years old,” said Backwell, “and are associated with Howieson’s Poort people in the Middle Stone Age. These large bone points were securely fixed to reed shafts to make one solid projectile implement.”

Extensive analysis of the fragments, all of which were found by Wadley, and comparison with a range of other bone tools from the region, reveals that the spatula-shaped piece was probably used to smooth leather as it has the same pattern of wear as other implements that were used experimentally for that purpose. One of the pointed fragments appeared to have been used as a pin or needle to pierce hides. The other pointed fragment, from its shape, is consistent with bone arrow points found at other Later Stone Age (about 45 000-20 000 years ago), Iron Age and Bushman sites.

In an interview with Discovery News, Biological Anthropology Professor at Pennsylvania State University Pat Shipman described the latest finding as “convincing in its conclusions and has enormous implications for our understanding of changes in human culture”.

Previously, an isolated bone point from a site at Klasies River provided inconclusive evidence but the Sibudu pieces confirm the existence of a bone tool industry during this period.

An ancient community

The fragments were dug up from the cave layer corresponding to the Howieson’s Poort bone tool-making operation. Howieson’s Poort was one of the most advanced industries of the Middle Stone Age, a period of African prehistory that started around 300 000 years ago and ended around 50 000 years ago. During this time humans developed the technique of making tools from stone. The Klasies River caves, located near the Klasies River on the Tsitsikamma coast, were home to similarly advanced people.

These sites provide clues to the behaviour of early humans. The people who lived here were of the Homo sapiens species and there are signs that they lived as hunters as opposed to scavengers, as may have been the case with other human species such as Homo erectus and Homo ergaster. Stone tools have been found in the earliest levels of the caves.

Similar sites include Blombos Cave, Rose Cottage Cave and Border Cave, all in South Africa. At all these sites archaeologists have discovered evidence of industries that compare to the Upper Palaeolithic period in Europe but are dated up to 30 000 years earlier.

Mankind’s use of projectile weapons may have evolved out of the primate habit of throwing faeces in defence or fear. Professor John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York, an anthropologist, explained that the human tactic of aimed throwing has its roots in this primate behaviour.

The structure of the human body, with its rotating hips and shoulders, enabled humans to use the throwing skill to great effect. It was only a matter of time before the early hurled objects began to take on the shapes of darts and arrows, followed at a later stage by the manufacture of arrowheads made from bone.

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