Did the very first humans that reached Europe hunt with bows and arrows? A new study appearing in the journal Science Advances claims that they did, and that this happened 54,000 years ago in southern France. This is the earliest evidence of bows and arrows being used by human beings living on the European continent, preceding the date of the earliest previously discovered bows and arrows by a shocking 40,000 years!
A Weapons Arsenal at Grotte Mandrin
The team of French and American anthropologists responsible for this stunning discovery studied a large collection of ancient artifacts removed from the Grotte Mandrin rock shelter in France´s Rhône Valley. They found hundreds of tiny stone points presumably used to make arrowheads and a single human child’s tooth, both unearthed in an excavation layer dated to approximately 52,000 BC.
While one tooth might not seem like overwhelming evidence, its presence is highly anomalous and therefore quite meaningful. It certainly suggests the tiny arrowheads were in fact left by Homo sapiens , occupying the land during a time when Neanderthals still dominated this region. All of the evidence is incredibly significant, since the Homo sapiens group responsible for bringing bows and arrows to prehistoric France arrived in Western Europe long before modern humans settled permanently in this part of the globe.
“The Rhône Valley is the most important natural corridor linking the Mediterranean Basin with the Northern European steppes and records an early exploration into Western Europe by modern humans who did not lead to their permanent presence, which would only be established 10 to 12 millennia later ,” the researchers wrote in their Science Advances article. “We document here that this earliest migration of humans into Neanderthal territories is associated with the mastery of bow. The use of these advanced technologies may be of crucial importance in the understanding of the remarkable expansion of the modern populations.”
Some archaeologists think the Grotte Mandrin shelter contains the earliest known evidence for Homo sapiens in Europe. (Ludovic Slimak/ Nature)
If indeed humans were occupying the area around the Grotte Mandrin shelter, their bow-and-arrow technology would have been completely unknown to their Neanderthal neighbors. Perhaps these earliest of the early human migrants relied on the bow and arrow to protect themselves from Neanderthal attack, which might explain why they were able to remain in the region long enough to leave a trail of artifacts behind.
Curiously, there is no evidence to suggest that Neanderthals living in the area made use of the bow and arrow after the humans arrived. The reason why Neanderthals wouldn’t have adopted the bow and arrow is considered a mystery, since the advantages it offered to hunter-gathering people would have been obvious.
Lithic points found at the Grotte Mandrin site. (Metz, L. et al/ Science Advances )
Ancient Arrowheads and the Ancient Migrants Who Used Them
The anthropologists responsible for the new study had already established that Grotte Mandrin was used as a shelter by both humans and Neanderthals at different points in its history. Occupation levels in the cave essentially alternated between the two hominin species, during a period of time that marked the transition in Europe between the Middle Paleolithic and Upper Paleolithic eras (the latter began approximately 40,000 years ago).
The child’s tooth and the tiny stone points were found in an excavation layer known as Layer E, which dated back to the Middle Paleolithic. The identification of the child’s tooth as human made this the earliest evidence of human occupation ever found in Western Europe.
Intrigued by the tiny flint points, which were no more than a centimeter wide in many cases, the researchers performed a functional analysis that showed these points were more finely designed and sharpened than points and blades found in other Grotte Mandrin layers.
To confirm their hunch that these were ancient arrowheads, the researchers made replicas of them, attached the imitations to arrows and fired them at the bodies of dead animals with a bow. The points were also tested after being attached to the ends of thrusting spears and spear-thrower darts, to see how versatile they might have been as weapons.
“We couldn’t throw them at the animals any other way than with a bow because they were too tiny and too light to be efficient,” study co-author Laure Metz of Aix Marseille University told the news service AFP. “We had to use this kind of propulsion. The only way that it was working was with a bow.”
Dr. Ludovic Slimak showing a Neronian nanopoint found in Grotte Mandrin layer E. (Philippe Psaila/ Science Advances )
Making the case even more conclusive, the researchers found scars on the ancient arrowheads they were able to identify as fracture points, of a type caused by high-velocity collisions with solid objects.
“Fractures for a lot of them, not all, were fractures of impact,” Metz said. “And they are coming at the end of the point.”
Since archery equipment is made from organic materials like wood, leather, and animal fibers, it would have long since degraded, making it impossible to find one of the actual bows that might have been manufactured 50,000 years ago. But the fractured arrowhead points and the arrowhead design make it clear that bows of some type would have been used to propel them.
Many horse bones were found in excavations at Grotte Mandrin. The researchers believe humans sheltering in the cave would have hunted these animals, and also would have preyed on bison herds migrating through the Rhône Valley. Tellingly, the team did find one horse femur with damage that could have been caused by a stone point.
Why Did the Neanderthals Reject the Bow and Arrow?
Both above and below Layer E, anthropologists and archaeologists have unearthed Neanderthal tools and remains. But they´ve found nothing to suggest these hominins were using bows and arrows.
So why didn´t Neanderthals adopt the bow and arrow, if the possibility had been offered to them? Some have speculated that Neanderthals lacked the cognitive essentials needed to comprehend and manufacture such a complex tool. But Metz suspects this is incorrect, and that instead ingrained cultural habits left them unwilling to try something new and unfamiliar.
As of now, there is no clear answer that explains the Neanderthal failure to use the bow and arrow after they were exposed to the technology. It may be that human excursions into Western Europe 54,000 years ago were so brief that their contacts with Neanderthals never reached the trading stage. Even if a Neanderthal had found a human-manufactured bow lying around Grotte Mandrin after the humans had departed, there would have been no one around to show them how to use it.
Top image: Replicas of the stone points made by the researchers using local flint, and incorporated them into spears and arrows. Source: Ludovic Slimak/ Nature
By Nathan Falde
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