Clues to the earliest known bow-and-arrow hunting outside Africa have been found

Possible arrowheads at a rainforest site in Sri Lanka date to 48,000 years ago

artifacts from Sri Lanka

A Sri Lankan cave yielded artifacts dating to roughly 48,000 years ago, including a notched bone possibly used to make nets (top), a monkey tooth that may have served as a knife (middle) and a possible bone arrowhead (bottom), a study finds.

M.C. Langley

People hunted with bows and arrows in a rainforest on a South Asian island starting around 48,000 years ago, a new study suggests.

Small bone artifacts with sharpened tips unearthed in a Sri Lankan cave represent the earliest evidence of bow-and-arrow use outside Africa, says a team led by archaeologist Michelle Langley of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.

Microscopic analyses of 130 of those bone points revealed surface cracks and other damage caused by high-speed impacts, likely because these artifacts were used as arrowheads, Langley and her colleagues conclude June 12 in Science Advances. Notches and wear at the bottom of the bone points indicate that they were attached to thin shafts. But the finds, from sediment in Fa-Hien Lena cave dating to between 48,000 and 34,000 years ago, are too short and heavy to have served as tips of blowgun darts, the investigators contend. Bow-and-arrow hunting at the Sri Lankan site likely focused on monkeys and smaller animals, such as squirrels, Langley says. Remains of these creatures were found in the same sediment as the bone points.

Evidence increasingly points to hunting with bows and arrows in Africa more than 60,000 years ago, says Marlize Lombard, an archaeologist at the University of Johannesburg who wasn’t involved in the study. “I would not be surprised to see [bow-and-arrow] hunting associated with any Homo sapiens group after about 65,000 years ago, regardless of location,” Lombard says.

bone point from Sri Lanka
Microscopic analyses of this bone point (shown from two sides) excavated on Sri Lanka indicate it probably served as the business end of an arrow as early as around 48,000 years ago.M.C. Langley
bone point from Sri Lanka
Microscopic analyses of this bone point (shown from two sides) excavated on Sri Lanka indicate it probably served as the business end of an arrow as early as around 48,000 years ago.M.C. Langley

Lombard, however, reserves judgment on the Sri Lankan bone points until high-resolution CT scans are used to probe for damage from high-speed impacts inside the artifacts. That technique helped to determine that a more than 60,000-year-old bone point previously unearthed in South Africa was probably an arrowhead, a team including Lombard reported in the May 15 Quaternary Science Reviews.

Archaeologist Ryan Rabett of Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland calls the new study of Sri Lankan bone points “suggestive but not definitive” evidence of bow-and-arrow hunting. It’s possible, he says, that bone points were attached to multi-pronged spears that were thrown or thrust at fish. Remains of fish were also found in ancient Fa-Hien Lena sediment.

Losing arrows while hunting in dense Sri Lankan forests would have presented a major challenge to ancient people, Rabett adds.

Other finds in Fa-Hien Lena cave, including bone implements possibly used to make clothes and nets as well as shell beads, indicate that a distinctive set of complex behaviors emerged deep in the Stone Age as people reached densely forested parts of South Asia, Langley and her colleagues say. A couple of pointed bones display no signs of having been attached to a shaft and possibly held bait while fishing or functioned as barbs in netted animal traps, Langley says. Another 29 bone artifacts appear to have been used to make clothes or nets out of animal skins or plant fibers.

Evidence of symbolic behavior at the site comes from three beads made from seashells and another three beads fashioned out of pieces of a red pigment called ochre. Single-holed ochre pieces might have been strung together as way to store them for future use rather than as ornaments, Langley says. Excavated chunks of red, yellow and silver pigment were likely used to decorate bodies or objects, she adds.

The artifacts support the idea, based mainly on archaeological finds in Africa, that complex behavior equivalent to that of people today emerged early in Homo sapiens evolution, 100,000 years ago or more, and involved finding ways to thrive in novel environments, Langley argues. What human evolution researchers often refer to as “modern” behavior “is all about flexibility and adaptability to a wide range of situations,” she says.

Until hominid fossils are found at Fa-Hien Lena, it’s hard to say who occupied the site, says New York University archaeologist Justin Pargeter. H. sapiens, Neandertals and Denisovans (SN: 12/16/19) inhabited parts of Asia and some Pacific islands, and periodically interbred, when bone points were being made at Fa-Hien Lena. “It may be too soon to conclude that this story is all about ‘modern’ humans,” Pargeter says.

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