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Planet Earth

#89: Archaeologists Find the World’s Oldest Arrowheads

While others were still hurling spears, these ancient people were felling prey with arrows.

By Jocelyn RiceDecember 7, 2008 6:00 AM


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In May researchers reported the discovery of the world’s oldest arrowheads, on the east coast of present-day South Africa. Some 60,000 years ago, at a time when other Stone Age people were heaving spears at their prey, the members of a culture known as Howiesons Poort were setting their weapons aloft with a bow, 20,000 years before the bow and arrow caught on for good. Archaeologist Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa first uncovered the bone tools two years ago, at the mouth of Sibudu Cave. Wadley’s colleague Lucinda Backwell immediately noticed a striking resemblance to the arrowheads fashioned by Late Stone Age, Iron Age, and Bushman cultures, all of which flourished much later.

Using a microscope, Backwell could see traces of the stone used to whittle a pinkie-size arrowhead into a highly symmetrical point. Bone is ideally suited to arrowheads, she says, because it is lightweight and easy to manipulate. By firing arrows from afar, prehistoric hunters could shoot down forest-dwelling prey that would be frightened off by an onrushing, spear-wielding human.

Their invention didn’t take hold, however. “You would imagine that the technology would continue, but it truly disappears,” Backwell says, and doesn’t reappear for 20,000 years. The bone tools suggest that rather than cropping up and then sticking around, “modern human behavior and innovation can come and go.”

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