May 21, 2024

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Was the Stone Age really the Age of Wood?

Was the Stone Age really the Age of Wood?

In 1836, Christian Jørgensen Thomsen, a Danish archaeologist, brought the first semblance of the system back to prehistoric times, suggesting that early humans in Europe had gone through three stages of technological development that were reflected in tool production. The basic chronology—from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age—now supports archeology throughout much of the ancient world (and cartoons like “The Flintstones” and “The Croods”).

Thomsen could have replaced the Wooden Age with the Stone Age, according to Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist and head of research at the Cultural Heritage Department of Lower Saxony in Germany.

He said: “Maybe we can assume that wooden tools existed for the same period as stone tools, that is, two and a half million or three million years ago.” “But since wood deteriorates and rarely survives, preservation bias distorts our view of antiquity.” Primitive stone tools characterized the Lower Paleolithic period, which lasted from about 2.7 million years ago to 200,000 years ago. Of the thousands of archaeological sites that can be traced back to that era, wood has been extracted from less than 10 sites.

Dr. Terberger was the leader of Team A Stady Published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provided the first comprehensive report on wooden objects excavated from 1994 to 2008 in the peat of an open pit coal mine near Schöningen in northern Germany. The rich haul included twenty whole or fragmentary spears (each as long as an NBA center) and double-pointed throwing sticks (half the length of a billiard cue) but no human bones. These objects date back to the end of the warm interglacial period 300,000 years ago, when early Neanderthals replaced Homo heidelbergensis, their direct ancestors in Europe. The projectiles discovered at the Schöningen site, known as the Spear Horizon, are considered the oldest preserved hunting weapons.

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In the mid-1990s, the discovery of a trio of spears — along with stone tools and the remains of 10 slaughtered wild horses — upended prevailing ideas about the intelligence, social interaction, and tool-making skills of our extinct human ancestors. At the time, the scientific consensus was that humans were simple scavengers who lived subsistence until about 40,000 years ago.

“It turns out that these pre-homo sapiens created tools and weapons to hunt big game,” Dr. Terberger said. “Not only did they communicate together to bring down prey, but they were sophisticated enough to organize butchering and roasting.”

The new study, which began in 2021, examined more than 700 pieces of wood from Spear Horizon, much of which had spent the past two decades stored in chilled vats of distilled water to simulate the water-saturated sediments that protected them from rotting. With the help of 3D microscopy and micro-CT scanners that highlighted signs of wear or cut marks, the researchers identified 187 pieces of wood that showed evidence of splitting, abrasion or wear.

“Until now, it was thought that wood splitting was only practiced by modern humans,” said Dirk Leder, also an archaeologist in Lower Saxony and lead author of the study.

Since there was no spruce or pine on the shore of the lake, where the site was located, the research team concluded that the trees had been felled on a mountain two or three miles away or perhaps farther. Close examination of the spears indicated that the Stone Age planned their woodworking projects carefully, following a specific order: stripping the bark, removing branches, sharpening the spear point, and hardening the wood with fire. “The wooden tools had a higher level of technological sophistication than what we typically see in stone tools from that era,” Dr. Leder said.

Francesco Derrico, an archaeologist at Purdue University who was not involved in the study, praised his insights into the methods and materials that Stone Age people used to solve practical Stone Age problems. “This paper opens a window into an almost unknown world of the Lower Paleolithic,” he said. “Despite the scarcity of data, the authors make a valiant attempt to propose a scenario for the evolution of this technology that should be tested in the future against new discoveries.”

Perhaps the most surprising discovery is that some of the spear points had been resharpened after having been broken or dulled earlier, and that some of the broken weapons had been reduced, polished and reused. “The wood we identified as working debris indicates that the tools were repaired and recycled into new tools for other tasks,” Dr. Milks said.

All but one of the spears were cut from slow-growing spruce logs and shaped and balanced like a modern spear, with the center of gravity in the middle of the shaft. But was it intended for throwing or pushing? “The spears were made of dense wood and had thick diameters,” Dr. Milks said. “To me, this suggests that the humans who made them may have intentionally designed at least some of them as flying weapons for hunting.”

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I tested the external ballistics of javelins by recruiting six trained male javelin throwers, ages 18 to 34, to levitate replicas in straw bales from various distances. “My point was to ask people who were a little better at doing this than archaeologists, because up until that point, we had done experiments with a lot of people who were…archaeologists,” Dr. Milks said, adding: “Anthropologists I’m not very good at that kind of thing either.

From a distance of 33 feet, the Neanderthal team hit the target 25 percent of the time. The athletes were equally accurate at 50 feet, and slightly lower (17 percent) at 65 feet. “However, this was twice the range at which scientists estimated a hand-thrown spear could be useful for hunting,” Dr. Milkes said.

For her, the idea that our Stone Age ancestors were craftsmen serves to humanize them. “Working with wood is slow, even if you’re good at it,” she said. “There are a lot of different steps in this process.” You imagine a group of Neanderthals gathering around an evening campfire, assembling, sanding, and repairing their wooden artefacts. “It all seems so very close, somehow, even though it was so long ago,” she said sadly.