A Weapon Tells A Million Historical Tales

weaponsIf you found spears from four hundred thousand years ago, and they looked like modern spears, then you could rewrite human history. Hartmut Thieme has found those spears.

Even before the lights dimmed, the atmosphere in the conference room was thick with anticipation. For months, rumors had been circulating among archaeologists that several remarkably old weapons had surfaced in an ancient German forest. Now, on this morning in March 1996, a group of European prehistory specialists had gathered in Leiden, the Netherlands, to see for themselves if the rumors were true.

Then Hartmut Thieme asked someone to pull the blinds shut. Everyone knew Thieme — there are so few sites in Europe older than one hundred thousand years that everyone who studies them knows everyone else — but until a few months earlier Thieme had worked in relative quiet as an archaeologist for the German government. Robin Dennell, an archaeologist at Britain’s Sheffield University, remembers the moment when Thieme’s obscurity ended. “When Hartmut flicked on that first slide,” says Dennell, “we were speechless. For me it was breathtaking — I’ve been in this field for thirty years, and I can’t think of any discovery that matches these spears.”

The wooden spears, from a site know as Schoningen, don’t look particularly stunning — unless Thieme told you, as he told his colleagues, that they were four hundred thousand years old. This particular date implied some absolutely amazing things about the spear owners, who were some of the earliest Europeans. The weapons‘ sleek shape, their tapered design, their careful use of wood and weight were reminiscent of modem javelins: they seemed hundreds of thousands of years ahead of their time. Nothing else like them had shown up until about thirty thousand years ago. But what’s even more important than the artifacts is what they imply about the people who made them. Throwing a weapon — and keeping yourself a safe distance from an angry animal — is usually seen as a big advance over running up close to tusks and teeth. If the spears and the brains required to have used them are any indication, the earliest Europeans were not the grunting lowbrows most anthropologists had come to suspect. Instead they possessed a budding intelligence.

Not only that, the spearmakers were expert, habitual hunters, and not the gatherer-scavengers that modem anthropologists like to think they were. That notion — Ancient Man as Mighty Hunter — is an idea that’s currently as unfashionable as, say, penis envy or Manifest Destiny. The question is, will the Schoningen spears revive it?

Tools across time. The chain of events leading up to the discovery of the spears began in the early 1980s, when the German mining company Braunschweigische KohlenBergwerke AG announced it would be expanding its operations in Schoningen, a town located in the Harz Mountains of northcentral Germany.

The mine expansion, projected to take more than two decades, quickly developed a certain inexorable rhythm. Each year a new chunk of farmland slated to become the next brown coal pit would be left fallow. That gave workers from the Institute for the Preservation of Historic Monuments — Hartmut Thieme’s employer — a twelve-month window to see if anything important might be buried there. Thieme is a soft-spoken, forty-seven-year-old, chronically overworked government employee who’s responsible for overseeing preservation of archaeological sites in the German province of Lower Saxony. In 1983 he proposed a long-term project: “I wanted to identify and excavate all the historical monuments in the six-square-kilometer (roughly 2.3-square-mile) area to be mined, which was then, archaeologically, a blank map.”

For the next ten years, almost every week, Thieme drove the hour and a half from his home near the city of Hannover to whatever patch of farmland was next due to come under the mining company’s giant rotary shovel excavator. There, he and his assistants would survey the area, map whatever they found, and sometimes do a quick excavation. Once the twelve-month window was up for a particular section, Thieme would close up shop and move on to the next piece of ground slated for mining. Always, he was conscious of the relentless, roughly 140-foot tall digging machine at his back, which roared away twenty-four hours a day, five days a week.

Until 1992 most of what Thieme found was traces of ancient farming communities that, by archaeological standards were quite recent — 5,500 years old and younger. In 1992, though, Thieme began working an area of older sediments that had been exposed by a brief mining project. According to the well-dated sequence of soil layers created by the advance and retreat of European glaciers, these sediments were nearly four hundred thousand years old and had been laid down in the early days of human presence in northern Europe. Thieme was particularly eager to find out what these deposits might hold, since his specialty is Paleolithic archaeology, the study of the cultural period beginning about 750,000 years ago and ending with the Mesolithic Age, about 15,000 years ago. Deposits this age are deeply buried in most places, which is one reason the archaeological record of early humans in Europe is maddeningly sketchy. Here, though, thanks to the excavator bucket, they were now accessible to the archaeologist’s trowel.

As Thieme worked at levels some fifty feet below the surface, the sections proved promising as stone flakes and the bones of many extinct animals emerged. Because this ground had been waterlogged (thus protecting the artifacts from the deteriorating effects of airborne oxygen, which tends to whittle away at molecules), preservation was wonderful. Thieme uncovered beetles whose wings still shimmered in various colors — green, blues, and violets. The downside, though, as always at Schoningen, was the time crunch.

In the fall of 1994, Thieme was excavating an especially productive section, knowing his twelve months here were almost up; the machine was due on November 1.

Spearing an old idea. On the afternoon of Thursday, October 20, everything changed. “My technician and I were working separately, twelve or thirteen feet apart,” Thieme recalls, “when he turned to me and said `Look — I’ve found a branch.'”

Ancient wood is a curiosity. Unlike more durable stone and bone, it survives insect destruction and microbial decay only if burial conditions are just right. Thieme got up to have a look. The assistant continued to scrape away very carefully, but when he got near the end of the branch, “we saw that it was pointed,” says Thieme. “And I said, `Oh, my God — this isn’t a branch — it’s a lance!'”

If ancient wood is a curiosity, a wood tool is a treasure. It’s stone that endures, stone tools that get put in museum collections, and stone tools that form the basis for speculation about how ancient humans lived. Wood — though early humans undoubtedly used it — goes the way of the ages, and so does the information about lifestyles that it holds. In the world’s archaeological record there are only three wooden implements thought to be spears that are older than about forty thousand years: one in Africa, one in Britain, and one other in Germany. Clearly, then, an ancient tool deeply buried in 4000,000-year-old sediment meant that Thieme’s lance was an important find, one that could help flesh out the portrait of our ancestors.

Like an attending surgeon replacing the resident when the case gets tricky, Thieme took over and began working gingerly toward the opposite end of the implement. He was hoping — if he got lucky and the tool was intact — to expose the stout butt of the supposed lance.

Then he got another surprise. The piece of wood narrowed under his fingers, eventually tapering to another point. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he recalls. “I thought, `This is no lance — this is a throwing stick.'”

In archaeology, as in modem war, there is a hierarchy of technology. Just as today’s bombs mark an ascent over yesterday’s bayonets partly because they take a soldier out of harm’s way, on a much lower technological level, a small spear trumps a weapon that is held, such as a lance. A thrown weapon, according to the sometimes slender thread of inference by which Paleolithic archaeologists recreate the minds of our ancestors, signifies a hunter clever enough to keep himself safe, one smart enough to factor in such variables as wind direction and distance of prey, and skilled enough to throw accurately. It hints, in other words, at the presence of an evolved intelligence.

Whether or not Schoningen-age hominids were intelligent is a subject of much debate. Some paleoanthropologists — people who study human fossils rather than artifacts — think that a sort of evolutionary watershed occurred at about that same time of four hundred thousand years ago. Depending on whom you listen to, the primitive Homo erectus in Europe was evolving into an archaic form of our own species, Homo sapiens, or an archaic form of Neanderthal sometimes called H. heidelbergensis.

Either way, almost every important question about these mysterious near-humans is up for grabs. Did they have language? Did they have fire? What did they eat, and how did they catch it? What were they doing in glacially-challenged northern Europe anyway? Two schools of thought exist on the IQ of these archaic humans. One group maintains that anyone who could stay alive in northern Europe — with its short growing season and its large carnivores — was almost by definition fairly brainy. For evidence, they point to the cranial capacity of mid-Pleistocene Europeans, which, though at the low end of the modem range for Homo sapiens, was still large enough to permit abstract thought and reasoning. But skeptics note that owning a big skull doesn’t correlate very well with intelligence, nor does mere survival in a harsh environment.

Almost from the moment he laid eyes on the throwing stick, Thieme understood its potential impact on that debate, but first he had more practical things to consider. After unearthing the artifact, hustling it to his lab in Hannover, and plunging it in a water bath to avoid exposing the wood to air (to protect it from decay), Thieme went to the offices of the mining company and announced his find. The company, impressed, granted Thieme a two-year reprieve in which to see what else might lie buried there. “That throwing stick bought us more time,” he says today.

“Afterwards, I was in a sort of trance for two weeks. I kept saying to myself, `Can you really have found the world’s oldest wooden tool?'”

With mounting excitement, Thieme began to uncover more artifacts. In August and September of 1995, he made the discoveries that would astound his Leiden audience: three more wooden objects, perfectly preserved despite the weight of thirty-three feet of sediment and four hundred millennia, and each between six and nine feet long, three times as long as the throwing stick he and his assistant had first uncovered. Wary of jumping to conclusions and conscious of the importance of this find, Thieme wanted others to see the artifacts in situ. So he phoned colleagues based elsewhere in Europe, cautiously outlined what he thought he’d found, and asked them to come see.

One of the first arrivals was Werner Schoch, head of the Laboratory for Quaternary Wood Research in Adliswil, Switzerland. Schoch had only recently been working on the wooden tools from the Iceman, the three-thousand-year-old frozen corpse discovered in an Alpine pass. “We stood at the edge of the Schoningen site,” he says, and Thieme played devil’s advocate: “He asked me, `Is there any way you can think of that these objects might have been formed by natural processes?’ And my answer was, `No — wood sharpened by erosion looks completely different.'”

The reason for Thieme’s caution was that these wooden artifacts, even more than the throwing stick, seemed far too sophisticated to be nearly half a million years old. The hominids, or human ancestors, whoever they were, had felled roughly thirty-year-old spruce trees for their spears and had carved them so that the tips were made of the oldest, densest wood, where the growth rings were closest together. Later measurements and detailed study would reveal that these spears were contoured and balanced so that the greatest weight was in the front third. This design, which increases the trajectory, is similar to what’s found in modern track and field versions.

Man the Hunter strikes again. Given the previous archaeological traces of early Europeans, though, none of this made any sense. Stone tool flakes and hand axes were all that the handful of other European sites from this period had ever yielded. These hand axes were virtually indistinguishable from what had been turning up with monotonous regularity in Africa for the preceding million years. The pattern was hardly one to inspire anthropological theories about intellectual progress.

Yet here, lying in the ancient sediments of Lower Saxony, were what appeared to be javelins designed with such forethought, and executed with such skill, that they might have gone unremarked at the Atlanta Olympics. While not as unsettling as finding, say, a Walkman in King Tut’s tomb, Thieme’s discovery was quite enough to make archaeologists wonder if they’d been underestimating these middle Pleistocene Europeans. In particular, it made them wonder if our ancestors had been wily hunters of big game, an idea that in recent years had come to seem painfully out of date.

Responsibility for the image of early man as a mighty hunter — one of the most influential ideas in twentieth century paleoanthropology — can reasonably be laid at the doorstep of Charles Darwin. History’s most famous evolutionist argued in his book, The Descent of Man, that hunting had been the behavioral engine driving human evolution: it was to the hunt that we owed our big brains, erect posture, and a host of other human traits. As Darwin envisioned it, and as later theorists elaborated upon the idea, slightly bigger brains and a slightly more erect posture made our ancestors slightly better hunters than the apes they competed with. Erect posture freed the hands for weapons and other tool use; bigger brains led to better weapons; and the act of hunting encouraged social cooperation and even language. The scenario, which later scientists would designate a “feedback loop,” fitted together in a tidy whole. Never mind that no fossil humans of any significance had been discovered when Darwin floated his theory: the idea made intuitive sense to a scientist who was a product of the nineteenth century, an age when hunting seemed as instinctive a pursuit for a man as breathing.

This last is not a trivial observation. Science historians are fond of pointing out that scientific theories are always a product of their times, and the problem is particularly acute in anthropology, where hard data can be hard to come by. “Each generation forms — or slides into — its own perceptions of the past until jolted out of them,” says Robin Dennell. “Big game hunting, with males providing the meat for the females and kids back home, fitted very well with traditional role models of males.”

Though the scenario imagined by anthropologists always included females and children gathering plants, they were bit players. The image of males going mano a mano with saber-toothed tigers and mammoths quickly took center stage in museum dioramas, on the pages of Time-Life picture books, and in the popular imagination.

In the late 1960s, though, when women started entering the field in significant numbers, Man the Hunter began to lose his luster. Where were the females in this hunting-centered picture of human evolution, women researchers asked. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, scientists of both sexes were suggesting that scavenging, along with the gathering of plant foods — gender-neutral activities — could have been more important than hunting as a survival strategy for our ancestors. The focus on hunting began to seem not just outdated but downright unenlightened, a mere projection of contemporary values onto the past.

By the time Thieme found his spears, most anthropologists had grown comfortable with the downsized vision of early humans as opportunistic feeders who ate plants and small game and scavenged meat from the carcasses of dead animals. Thieme, of course, knew his find would upset the current theoretical applecart, and gingerly said so when he reported on the spears in the scientific journal Nature.

Other researchers, though, are less circumspect about his find. Says archaeologist John Shea of the State University of New York in Stony Brook, “You know how, all these years, people have been talking about the `glimmers of complexity’ at 150,000 years?” The discovery of the spears goes, Shea says, far beyond a glimmer. “As far as I’m concerned, this is H. heidelbergensis’s way of saying, `In your face!’ to all of them.”

What might have happened at Schoningen was very different from the scrapings of opportunistic scavengers. Thieme has found, in addition to the spears, a variety of stone tools and thousands of horse bones, including ten complete horse skulls. Many of the horse bones had cut marks. Taken together, he says, it begins to form a picture of a trap and a hunt. A band of hunters may have lain in wait beside a lake — the sediments were also full of mollusk shells — driven the horses into the marshes, then killed and butchered them.

All of this requires a lot of advanced planning, coordination, and division of labor and resources, in addition to the craftsmanship required to make the sophisticated tools. In other words, says Thieme, “It simply was not possible for such primitive people to have survived here. It’s cold here in the winter; they must have had fire, must have had clothes. And it’s impossible to survive a European winter eating only scavenged food.” In still other words, the early Europeans had to have a lot on the ball.

Sometimes a spear can be simply a big stick. When Duke University anthropologist Steve Churchill read Thieme’s paper this past spring, he was both impressed and slightly skeptical. Churchill spends a lot of time thinking about how hominids, or early humans, got their dinner. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I think Thieme has made a fantastic discovery. I just don’t think those spears were thrown.”

Churchill’s skepticism arises from two lines of research. Well before the Schoningen spears were even a rumor, he had done an exhaustive review of old studies on hunting. He was trying to pick up clues about how the last aboriginal groups on Earth got their meat, reasoning that the hunting practices of people with simple technology might provide clues to the hunting practices of our common ancestors. So he read dozens of dusty anthropological monographs, and pored over the faded pages of forgotten diaries in which early explorers recorded their first astonished encounters with the natives.

What Churchill found surprised him. While males in most of these groups did indeed carry spears, they hardly ever threw the weapons at anything. When they used them for hunting they stabbed animals up close’ after they’d trapped the prey in a net or somehow cornered it. Among the ninety-six groups on which he eventually amassed data, Churchill found only one — a tribe in northern Australia — that actually threw spears. The target? The timid, cat-sized wallaby.

Intrigued, Churchill began wondering if spear-throwing had ever been important to hunter-gatherers. Undertaking studies of bone density and shape in the human arm, he found that different types of heavy activity leave characteristic signatures in the bone; the humerus or upper arm of a tennis player, for example, will look different from that of a discus thrower because of the different mechanical loads each activity puts on the arm. But when he looked at ancient humeri, he found no morphological changes of the sort that might result from spear throwing until about twenty thousand years ago. By that time, of course, everyone agrees that humans were fully modern.

So, rather like Freud insisting that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, he balks at the chain of inference that’s required to get from spear manufacture to complex thought. After all, he says, “What does a spear really tell you? All it really tells you is that you have a human who knows how to make a big spear.”

In response, Thieme is sticking to his weapons. “That’s like saying modem humans know how to make a computer, but not how to use it.”

Still, Churchill is but one of several anthropologists who are not yet convinced that big spears equate to big, complex thoughts. But if the Schoningen spears aren’t enough to pierce the enigma of the mid-Pleistocene mind or to resurrect Man the Hunter and convince skeptics of our ancestors’ hunting prowess, one thing is certain: more evidence of something will be emerging from Lower Saxony soon.

The directors of the mining company recently granted Thieme ten more years to plumb the secrets of the Schoningen site, and though free for once from crushing deadlines, he still behaves as though the bucket excavator were hard on his heels. According to his projected timetable, he’ll spend two more years exposing the area with the spears and the horse fossils, which by last summer had already yielded a total of seven spears. Then he’ll start working his way down to the lowest, oldest levels of the interglacial deposits, estimated to be some 650,000 years old. “It was warmer then, and in other outcroppings of this level we have seen whole trees preserved,” he says, with the air of a man setting off on a great adventure. “Who knows what else might be down there?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *