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Proof our ancestors were expert woodworkers 300,000 years ago

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Proof our ancestors were expert woodworkers 300,000 years ago

New analysis of a tool that dates back 300,000 years has revealed that our ancestors were skilled woodworkers that crafted useful hunting weapons, taking into account comfort, efficiency and longevity.

A 77-cm-long (30-in) double-pointed wooden throwing stick, originally found in Shöningen, Germany, in 1994, has been newly analyzed using micro-CT scanning, three-dimensional microscopy, infrared spectroscopy and Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy. The remarkable results have thrilled the team from the University of Reading, with the technology allowing much greater insight than previous analysis of the tools in the collection.

“Discoveries of wooden tools have revolutionized our understanding of early human behaviors,” said research lead Annemieke Milks, of the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology. “Amazingly these early humans demonstrated an ability to plan well in advance, a strong knowledge of the properties of wood, and many sophisticated woodworking skills that we still use today.”

The site where the tool, among others, were found in 1994

Among the findings, the researchers were able to determine the tree the wood was from, how old it likely was, that it was a branch piece, and that it’d been meticulously worked on by its crafter for use most likely in hunting.

They were even able to see how the wood had been carved, sanded and ‘sealed’ to ensure the tool lasted in the elements.

“The Schöningen humans used a spruce branch to make this aerodynamic and ergonomic tool,” said co-aithor Dirk Leder. “The woodworking involved multiple steps including cutting and stripping off the bark, carving it into an aerodynamic shape, scraping away more of the surface, seasoning the wood to avoid cracking and warping, and sanding it for easier handling.”

All this suggests the tool would have been a reliable, long-term companion for its maker and potentially used in teaching younger members of the group to hunt.

“These lightweight throwing sticks may have been easier to launch than heavier spears, indicating the potential for the whole community to take part,” said Leder. “Such tools could have been used by children while learning to throw and hunt.”

Found among several different kinds of carved apparatus most likely used for hunting, this one was most likely used to take down medium-sized animals such as deer, and maybe even hare and birds.

And despite its spear-like appearance, these throwing sticks were most likely used like a boomerang, thrown with enough spin to be deadly on impact.

The skilful woodwork can be seen in the shaped, sanded and treated spiked ends
The skilful woodwork can be seen in the shaped, sanded and treated spiked ends

As for which of our ancestors most likely displayed these crafty talents? The jury is out. However, general consensus leads towards Homo heidelbergensis or perhaps H. neanderthalensis.

“Further exciting information on these early wooden weapons can be expected soon,” teased principal investigator Thomas Terberger.

And if you find yourself in the neighborhood, you can see this 300,000-year-old wooden wonder on display in Forschungsmuseum in Schöningen.

The study was published in the journal PLOS One.

Source: Reading University

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