A 300,000-year-old wooden stick, one of the oldest weapons ever found, may have been thrown like a boomerang to stun animals.
The first weapons used by ancient humans are likely to have been made from wood, says Annemieke Milks at the University of Reading, UK, but we have few surviving samples because the vast majority have been degraded by bacteria or fungi.
A set of artefacts found in Schöningen, Germany, includes weapons that have been dated to between 337,000 and 300,000 years old. No hominin remains have been found at the site. But, based on the dates, it is likely that the makers were Neanderthals or their predecessor, Homo heidelbergensis.
The region has been submerged in water for most of the intervening time, which has protected the wooden artefacts from bacteria and fungi, says Milks. “If the wood had been in fluctuating water levels, [it] would have rotted pretty quickly, within a couple of years,” she says.
The 77-centimetre-long stick was found in 1994, but Milks and her colleagues have now studied it with modern imaging techniques such as 3D microscopy. “You can do things like measure and see the profile of a cut mark,” says Milks.
They found that it had been fashioned from the branch of a spruce tree, unlike the other weapons found at the site, which were made from spruce trunks. Branches are lighter and have a curve, says Milks.
The stick is pointed at both ends, but one end becomes narrow a lot quicker than the other. “We think that they did this so that the centre of mass is not in the middle,” she says.
The lightness of the wood, the fact it had a curve and that it had been shaped so its centre of mass was displaced all suggest that it was designed to be thrown like a boomerang, rather than a spear, says Milks. “They’re creating an aerodynamic tool,” she says.
By studying weapons used by modern hunter-gatherer societies, Milks believes the stick may have been thrown at the legs of medium-sized animals like deer in order to stun them. “Then you might use your spears to finish them off,” she says.
The tool is also light enough that it may have been used by children while they learned to hunt, she says. “The footprints of children have been found at the site,” she says.