Infantry Weapons, 498,000 BC: Stone-tipped Spears

OK, this article from The Grauniad is a good three years old. But we seem to have missed it then, so there’s a good chance you missed it then, too. Let’s not miss it now! Here’s why stone-tipped spears were important: the first known spears date from 600,000 years ago, but they were just sharpened sticks. They could have been made by several arguably pre-human, protohuman or early human species, before the emergence of modern Homo sapiens or even our most recent extinct cousin, Homo neanderthalensis. Until recently, all evidence for stone-tipped spears came from the last 300,000 years and were arguably attributable to H. sapiens or to Neanderthals.


A research dig in South Africa led then-Toronto (now Arizona State) archaeologist Jayne Wilkins to a surprising conclusion: our ancestors were making stone-tipped spears before they were even exactly “human.” First, the importance of the technology:

The invention of stone-tipped spears was a significant point in human evolution, allowing our ancestors to kill animals more efficiently and have more regular access to meat, which they would have needed to feed ever-growing brains. “It’s a more effective strategy which would have allowed early humans to have more regular access to meat and high-quality foods, which is related to increases in brain size, which we do see in the archaeological record of this time,” said Jayne Wilkins, an archaeologist at the University of Toronto who took part in the latest research.

The technique needed to make stone-tipped spears, called hafting, would also have required humans to think and plan ahead: hafting is a multi-step manufacturing process that requires many different materials and skill to put them together in the right way. “It’s telling us they’re able to collect the appropriate raw materials, they’re able to manufacture the right type of stone weapons, they’re able to collect wooden shafts, they’re able to haft the stone tools to the wooden shaft as a composite technology,” said Michael Petraglia, a professor of human evolution and prehistory at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the research. “This is telling us that we’re dealing with an ancestor who is very bright.”

It may not take a genius to make spears, but it probably took a genius to invent one.

Dating the stone tips to 500,000 years ago means that they were used on spears by the last common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis. The idea that Homo heidelbergensis developed stone-tipped tools made a lot of sense, said Petraglia, because Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, which descended and split from Homo heidelbergensis around 300,000-400,000 years ago, used similar stone-tipped spear weapons.

Petraglia added that there were several other implications to the discovery thatHomo heidelbergensis had used hafting to make spears. Adding stones would not only have given our ancestors an easier way to kill prey, but also to do it from a distance. “There is a big difference between thrusting and throwing,” he said. “You can kill from a distance, maybe 10 to 30 metres away. The previous ancestors did not have that technology, so it means you are now occupying a new ecological niche, you can now take animals down more efficiently.”

Meanwhile, while the archaeologists seem to think only of the spears as hunting weapons, not as warfare tools, they theorize that hunting meat with these spears was not just an effect of rising intelligence, but a cause as well:

He added that the discovery also shed light on the development of modern human cognition. “Hominins – both Homo erectus and earlier humans – were into this meat-eating niche and meat-eating is something that is thought to be very important in terms of fuelling a bigger brain,” said Petraglia. “In terms of our evolutionary history, that’s been going on for millions of years. You have selection for a bigger brain and that’s an expensive tissue and that protein from meat is a very important fuel, essentially. If you become a killing machine, using spears, you’ve come up with a technological solution where you can be reliant on meat-eating constantly. Homo heidelbergensis is known as a big-brained hominid, so having reliable access to meat-eating is important.”

It’s a fascinating article, and deep for a newspaper (and the Grauniad of all things!). For more depth, the Science article is available to subscribers and members of the AAAS. The free teaser:

Ancient Weaponry

Hafting, which allowed projectile points to be attached to a staff, was an important technological advance that greatly increased the functionality of weapons of early humans. This technology was used by both Neandertals and early Homo sapiens and is readily seen after about 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, but whether it was used by a common ancestor or was separately acquired by each species is unclear. Supporting use by a common ancestor, Wilkins et al. (p. 942) report that stone points in a site in central South Africa were hafted to form spears around 500,000 years ago. The evidence includes damaged edges consistent with this use and marks at the base that are suggestive of hafting.


Hafting stone points to spears was an important advance in weaponry for early humans. Multiple lines of evidence indicate that ~500,000-year-old stone points from the archaeological site of Kathu Pan 1 (KP1), South Africa, functioned as spear tips. KP1 points exhibit fracture types diagnostic of impact. Modification near the base of some points is consistent with hafting. Experimental and metric data indicate that the points could function well as spear tips. Shape analysis demonstrates that the smaller retouched points are as symmetrical as larger retouched points, which fits expectations for spear tips. The distribution of edge damage is similar to that in an experimental sample of spear tips and is inconsistent with expectations for cutting or scraping tools. Thus, early humans were manufacturing hafted multicomponent tools ~200,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Nietzsche said, “That what does not kill you, makes you stronger.” says, “That with which you kill, makes you smarter.” If our H. erectus and heidelbergensis forbears had been vegans, we might still be apes.

Technically-minded readers will enjoy a follow-on paper from 2014 (from PLOS ONE, freely available) which explores the relative performance of hafted-stone and solid-wood spears “thrown” by a calibrated crossbow into ballistic gelatin. (This article has several fascinating aspects and deserves exploration in depth).


Since its publication, Wilkins’s original article has been criticized as, in the words of one critical article, an “abuse of the use-wear method.” Wilkins and three co-authors defended their findings in a further follow-on paper last year, and accused their critics of “using our paper as a straw-man example of the abuse of use-wear.” As archaeology disputes go, it’s a bit heated, but they haven’t resorted to spears. Yet.

11 thoughts on “Infantry Weapons, 498,000 BC: Stone-tipped Spears

  1. ToastieTheCoastie

    There was a recent storm of internet controversy when a fellow in Canada killed a black bear with a spear. It’s ironic because one of the anti-hunting crowd’s favorite quips is “hunters shouldn’t be allowed to use rifles, they should have to do it the old fashioned way!”

    1. Miles

      A bunch of anti-hunters, wielding a petition of a little over 4000 signatures, somehow convinced UnderArmor to cease being a sponsor of that hunter’s wife.

      Just a tidbit of information for anyone’s thoughts about future clothes buys.

      1. RSR

        The wife filmed the hunt. And both the hunter lobby and peta lobby are turning this into an absurdity that it need not be.

        And as a hunter myself, I found that bear hunt distasteful. For one, they baited the bear in. And two, the guy taking the animal seems to have done so entirely out of self-indulgence — a matter of personal glory — rather than showing the animal respect and taking its life as quickly, efficiently, and humanely as possible.
        I watched the video, spear throw was poor at best, and saw that they claimed the bear died within a short time and only ran 50 yards or so away. Either read that they donated the meat on this specific bear, or that they do so on their many other hunts…
        Bottom line, the guy wanted to kill a bear with spear. It wasn’t respectful to the animal and at best this “bucket list” item.
        Trophy hunting just doesn’t jive w/ my ethical system…

        To a degree, I have the same feelings about bow and crossbow hunting, but both are a big improvement in accuracy over a spear.

  2. Desertrat

    “…meat-eating is something that is thought to be very important in terms of fuelling a bigger brain,” said Petraglia.”

    Good thing they weren’t vegans.

    1. collimatrix

      “It may not take a genius to make spears, but it probably took a genius to invent one.”

      And a tip of the hat to whichever ancient forebearer that was. He’s the reason we don’t get eaten by lions and tigers anything like as often anymore.

  3. Mike_C

    >while the archaeologists seem to think only of the spears as hunting weapons, not as warfare tools
    Puts me in mind of something Tam said (in the context of visiting some woodworking supply shop): Bobbi will be admiring some esoteric two-handed reverse-bevel dovetail chisel and talking aloud to herself of all the wonderful things she could build with it, and I’ll be next to her and hefting the slightly larger model, muttering “Man, you could really **** somebody up with one of these things…”

    Haven’t got time to peruse the PLOS One paper right now, but amusing typo in the Figure 2 caption: “plastic pictures were used as the molds”. This is what comes of using a spell-checker in place of an editor. And to get all editorial nazi on this, it should be “20-kg draw force” and not “20 kg draw force” because the 20-kg modifies the draw force.
    /pedantic jackass=OFF

  4. redc1c4

    the Neanderthals still walk amongst us…

    and sometimes inside us. (link in nick)

    for hours of reading pleasure, search “Neanderthal DNA in modern humans” and variations thereof. everything from hard science to moonbat, so there’s something for everyone.

  5. Loren

    I would think an Atlati would be more important than tipping the spear with a crudely shaped rock. This isn’t saying a Folsom point isn’t a thing of beauty, effective and deadly, but a fire hardened stick thrown with an atlati can do some serious damage.
    I’d also like to see the guy who can toss a tree limb / rock combination 30 meters and kill anything bigger than rabbit without one.
    The Aboriginals of Australia never used anything but fire hardened tips and an atlati and managed to kill off all the large game, including some serious carnivorous on their continent and a decent number of England’s finest in later years.

  6. staghounds

    1. If true, this is astonishing news.

    2. No coyote can kill a buffalo with a single snap, but plenty of buffalo have been killed by coyotes. Our ancestors didn’t have to have one-shot kills. An injury was enough, weaken the prey, and then harry it until it gets so tired it can be finished off. Wolves and other small pack predators hunt big animals like that. Insurgents bring down mighty armies with the same process.

    3. A rabbit is more meat than nothing.

    1. John M.

      3. And pretty good eating, to boot, especially if you’ve got some water and sufficient fuel for a good boil. A diet of rabbit will leave you fat-deficient, though, so better track something down with a little blubber. Get some friends and find a bear.

      -John M.

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