Ancient hominids used wooden spears to fend off big cats

Discovery of saber-toothed cat bones near spears suggests the weapons were used for more than hunting

BIG BITE  The remains from saber-toothed cats, including this tooth shown from three angles, found at a German site suggest that hominids used wooden spears to defend against this predator’s attacks. 

J. Serangeli et al/Journal of Human Evolution 2015, Volker Minkus (photo)

Human ancestors living in Central Europe between 320,000 and 300,000 years ago may have used wooden spears to fend off fearsome, meat-eating rivals — saber-toothed cats.

From 2011 to 2013, a team led by paleontologist Jordi Serangeli of the University of Tübingen in Germany found five teeth and a partial leg bone from two of these roughly 200-kilogram predators at a site where researchers previously discovered ancient wooden spears. Whatever hominid species made the spears must have needed them to defend against attacks by saber-toothed cats, the researchers propose online October 23 in the Journal of Human Evolution.  

Limited signs of wear on teeth from one saber-toothed cat, found about 100 meters from the spear excavation, indicate that the creature was relatively young. Pits, scrapes and other marks on the leg bone of an adult male, found in spear-bearing sediment, indicate that hominids used the bone as a hammer for making stone tools.

Excavations at the same site, Germany’s Schöningen mine, from 1994 to 1999 produced parts or all of eight wooden spears with sharpened points that could be thrown at targets (SN: 3/1/97, p. 134). One partial wooden shaft may have been a spear and another could have been a spear or a lance suitable only for stabbing a target. Horse remains discovered with the spears suggested that hominids had used the 2- to 2.5-meter-long implements to hunt these wild animals.

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PROJECTILE DEFENSE New fossil finds indicate that hominids living in Europe about 300,000 years ago fended off saber-toothed cats with wooden spears such as these two. Each spear is shown from two angles. W.H. Schoch et al/Journal of Human Evolution 2015, C.S. Fuchs (photo)

Replicas of the spears can be thrown accurately at prey from only about 30 to 40 meters away, a distance a motivated lion can cover in a few seconds, says archaeologist John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York. “If one wanted to drive off a big carnivore, it would have been much easier to bounce a rock off its head,” he says. So spears such as those from Schöningen may have been weapons of last resort for hominids threatened by large predators, Shea suggests.

Indications that hominids held off predators with the same spears used for hunting align with contentions that other ancient tools had many functions (SN: 4/4/15, p. 16).

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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