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Editor Patrick Lavery of Spectroscopy talked to two co-authors of a study that analyzed information about a 300,000-year-old wooden hunting stick found in modern-day Germany.
A recent study in the journal PLoS One has documented the use of spectroscopy and related techniques to explore the origins of human-made wooden tools from the Middle Pleistocene era, specifically a double-pointed "throwing" or hunting stick (1). According to the study's authors, the area that is now Schöningen, Germany, where these tools were first discovered in 1994, is home to the oldest large-scale record of such hunting equipment.
Spectroscopy asked Annemieke Milks, a British Academy postdoctoral researcher in the department of archaeology at the University of Reading, UK, and Dirk Leder of the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage in Hannover, Germany, two of the co-authors, about their research in terms of spectroscopy's place in determining the construction of these tools and therefore, the level of sophistication in woodworking skill of these early humans about which there is still much modern uncertainty.
Q: As your text states, the Schöningen site was discovered nearly 30 years ago, but many questions remain. You say that this double-pointed stick was carved from spruce, but in other ways it differs from other wooden tools found. How so?
A: There are several aspects that unite the wooden weapons from the ‘Spear Horizon’, the specific area and time period from which the spears and throwing sticks were found. Like this throwing stick, the spears were crafted to be double-pointed. What makes the throwing stick different in design is that it is shorter than the spears. It was also shaped from a smaller, naturally curving branch, to reflect a finished shape that was curved rather than straight. These features, in addition to the specific way that the stick was shaped to have a slightly elliptical cross-section, all point to intentional design as a projectile weapon, thrown rotationally like a boomerang. In contrast, the spears look like were designed to be both thrust and thrown overhand like javelins.
Q: How much is generally known about life in the Middle Pleistocene era and what clues do these tools hold?
A: Unfortunately, we still know relatively little about the time before Neanderthals, so more than 300,000 years ago. People lived as hunter-gatherers roaming the landscape in extended families and bands. They ate both plants and meat, and lived under the open sky, probably in tents, rather than in caves. When thinking about this early part of the Stone Age most people would associate it with handaxes, but at Schöningen, it seems that the stone tools used were limited to simple stone flakes. This stands in contrast to their range of different wooden weapons, shaped with sophisticated woodworking skills. The Middle Pleistocene may also be the time when hominins started caring for their deceased and might have had an aptitude for symbolic expressions, although this is much debated and evidence remains sparse.
Q: It’s fascinating that spectroscopic techniques can not only analyze a tool of this sort to evaluate human behavior regarding its construction and use, but also the types of animals it might have been used to hunt. What other information can spectroscopy provide?
A: Spectroscopy has the advantage over other methods that it is non-destructive or at least minimally invasive, which is an important benchmark in archaeology as we are responsible for objects that are both ancient and often unique.
Spectroscopy provides a great range of opportunities for analyzing chemical elements, minerals, and biological residues, which provide us clues on the materials used, for example in cave or pottery paintings, blood and plant residues on stone-tipped weapons or metal vessels, components of adhesive materials or metal alloys. For example, gold applications on the sky disc from Nebra in Germany could be linked to geological sources in Cornwall, UK, while copper of the bronze alloy was imported from Austria speaking for a vast trading network spanning Europe some 4,000 years ago.
Q: Are there other periods of prehistory you can think of that contain the level of mystery uncovered by the finding of these tools, and what might future deployment of the techniques used here tell us about our predecessors?
A: Every period in archaeology has its own research agenda, however generally speaking, raw material sources and material components are a fast-growing field of interest in archaeology. Alongside better understanding of raw material sources and material composition stand questions of prehistoric technologies and the level of skill reached by the craftspeople of their time. Personally, I believe spectroscopic methods will play a crucial role in better understanding our past.
Q: Any other points you would like to make about this research or how you might continue it in the future?
A: At Schöningen we are currently studying the complete assemblage of wooden tools from the so-called spear horizon, while in future there might be opportunities to also study even older tools from different zones at Schöningen. As for spectroscopy analyses, we intend to broaden our investigation of residues on wooden hunting weapons. We are looking for clues of blood, grease or plant remains on the tips of spears.
(1) Milks, A.; Lehmann, J.; Leder, D.; et al. A double-pointed wooden throwing stick from Schöningen, Germany: Results and new insights from a multianalytical study. PLoS One 2023, 18 (7). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0287719