Homo sapiens may have brought archery to Europe about 54,000 years ago

Small stone points could have felled prey only as tips of arrows shot from bows, scientists say

A closeup photo of a small semi-transparent stone in the shape of an arrowhead held between a person's index finger and thumb.

Small stone points such as this one, unearthed at a French rock-shelter, served as arrowheads for Homo sapiens who introduced archery to Europe around 54,000 years ago, researchers say.

Philippe Psaila

Homo sapiens who reached Europe around 54,000 years ago introduced bows and arrows to that continent, a new study suggests.

Researchers examined tiny triangular stone points and other artifacts excavated at a rock-shelter in southern France called Grotte Mandrin. H. sapiens on the move probably brought archery techniques from Africa to Europe, archaeologist Laure Metz of Aix-Marseille University in France and colleagues report February 22 in Science Advances.

“Metz and colleagues demonstrate bow hunting [at Grotte Mandrin] as convincingly as possible without being caught bow-in-hand,” says archaeologist Marlize Lombard of the University of Johannesburg, who did not participate in the new study.

No bows were found at the site. Wooden items such as bows preserve poorly. The oldest intact bows, found in northern European bogs, date to around 11,000 years ago, Metz says.

Previous stone and bone point discoveries suggest that bow-and-arrow hunting originated in Africa between about 80,000 and 60,000 years ago. And previously recovered fossil teeth indicate that H. sapiens visited Grotte Mandrin as early as 56,800 years ago, well before Neandertals’ demise around 40,000 years ago and much earlier than researchers had thought that  H. sapiens first reached Europe (SN: 2/9/22).

“We’ve shown that the earliest known Homo sapiens to migrate into Neandertal territories had mastered the use of the bow,” Metz says.

No evidence suggests that Neandertals already present in Europe at that time launched arrows at prey. It’s also unclear whether archery provided any substantial hunting advantages to H. sapiens relative to spears that were thrust or thrown by Neandertals.

A close up photo of of a small semi transparent stone triangle resting on an adult's fingertip.
Experiments suggest that the tiny size of ancient stone points found in France, illustrated by this specimen resting on an adult’s fingertip, made them suitable for hunting only when used as arrowheads shot from bows.Laure Metz, Ludovic Slimak

Among 852 stone artifacts excavated in a H. sapiens sediment layer at Grotte Mandrin dated to about 54,000 years ago, 196 triangular stone points displayed high-impact damage. Another 15 stone points showed signs of both high-impact damage and alterations caused by butchery activities, such as cutting.

Comparisons of those finds were made to damage on stone replicas of the artifacts that the researchers used as arrowheads shot from bows and as the tips of spears inserted in handheld throwing devices. Additional comparative evidence came from stone and bone arrowheads used by recent and present-day hunting groups.

Impact damage along the edges of stone points from the French site indicated that these implements had been attached at the bottom to shafts.

The smallest Grotte Mandrin points, many with a maximum width of no more than 10 millimeters, could have pierced animals’ hides only when shot from bows as the business ends of arrows, the researchers say. Experiments they conducted with replicas of the ancient stone points found that stone points less than 10 millimeters wide reach effective hunting speeds only when attached to arrow shafts propelled by a bow.

Larger stone points, some of them several times the size of the smaller points, could have been arrowheads or might have tipped spears that were thrown or thrust by hand or launched from handheld spear throwers, the researchers conclude.

Lombard, the University of Johannesburg archaeologist, suspects that the first H. sapiens at the French rock-shelter hunted with bows and arrows as well as with spears, depending on where and what they were hunting. Earlier studies directed by Lombard indicated that sub-Saharan Africans similarly alternated between these two types of hunting weapons starting between about 70,000 and 58,000 years ago.

H. sapiens newcomers to Europe may have learned from Neandertals that spear hunting in large groups takes precedence on frigid landscapes, where bow strings can easily snap and long-distance pursuit of prey is not energy efficient, Lombard says.

But learning about archery from H. sapiens may not have been in the cards for Neandertals. Based on prior analyses of brain impressions on the inside surfaces of fossil skulls, Lombard suspects that Neandertals’ brains did not enable the enhanced visual and spatial abilities that H. sapiens exploited to hunt with bows and arrows.

That’s a possibility, though other controversial evidence suggests that Neandertals behaved no differently from Stone Age H. sapiens (SN: 3/26/20).If Grotte Mandrin Neandertals never hunted with bows and arrows but still survived just fine alongside H. sapiens archers for roughly 14,000 years, reasons for Neandertals’ ultimate demise remain as mysterious as ever.

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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