A publication in Nature Scientific Reports

Long-distance weaponry identified at the 31,000-year-old archaeological site of Masières-Canal



Examples of experimental thrusting spears and javelins armed with replicas of the archaeological flint points. ©ULiège/TraceoLab

The hunter-gatherers who settled on the banks of the Haine, a river in southern Belgium, 31,000 years ago were already using spearthrowers to hunt their game. This is the finding of a new study conducted at TraceoLab at the University of Liège. The material found at the archaeological site of Maisières-Canal permits establishing the use of this hunting technique 10,000 years earlier than the oldest currently known preserved spearthrowers. This discovery, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, is prompting archaeologists to reconsider the age of this important technological innovation.

The spearthrower is a weapon designed for throwing darts, which are large projectiles resembling arrows that generally measure over two metres long. Spearthrowers can propel darts over a distance of up to eighty metres. The invention of long-range hunting weapons has had significant consequences for human evolution, as it changed hunting practices and the dynamics between humans and their prey, as well as the diet and social organisation of prehistoric hunter-gatherer groups. The date of invention and spread of these weapons has therefore long been the subject of lively debate within the scientific community.

“Until now, the early weapons have been infamously hard to detect at archaeological sites because they were made of organic components that preserve rarely, explains Justin Coppe, researcher at TraceoLab. Stone points that armed ancient projectiles and that are much more frequently encountered at archaeological excavations have been difficult to connect to particular weapons reliably.” Most recently published claims for early use of spearthrowers and bows in Europe and Africa have relied exclusively on projectile point size to link them to these weapon systems. However, ethnographic reviews and experimental testing have cast serious doubt on this line of reasoning by showing that arrow, dart, and spear tips can be highly variable in size, with overlapping ranges.

Pieces archéologique et traces (c)TraceoLab

Combination of impact traces on an archaeological artefact that could be identified as a spearthrower dart thanks to the experiments. ©ULiège/TraceoLab

The innovative approach developed by the archaeologists at TraceoLab combines ballistic analysis and fracture mechanics to gain a better understanding of the traces preserved on the flint points. “We carried out a large-scale experiment in which we fired replicas of Palaeolithic projectiles using different weapons such as spears, bows and spearthrowers," explains Noora Taipale, FNRS research fellow at TraceoLab. By carefully examining the fractures on these stone points, we were able to understand how each weapon affected the fracturing of the points when they impacted the target". Each weapon left distinct marks on the stone points, enabling archaeologists to match these marks to archaeological finds. In a way, it's like identifying a gun from the marks the barrel leaves on a bullet, a practice known from forensic science.

The excellent match between the experimental spearthrower sample and the Maisières-Canal projectiles confirmed that the hunters occupying the site used these weapons. This finding encourages archaeologists to apply the method further to find out how ancient long-range weaponry really is. Future work at TraceoLab will focus on adjusting the analytical approach to other archaeological contexts to help reach this goal.

spearthrower shots (c)TraceoLab
Christian Lepers preparing for a spearthrower shot during the experimentation conducted at TraceoLab. ©ULiège/TraceoLab

 

Research methodology

The archaeologists at TraceoLab tackled the important methodological problem by developing an innovative analytical method in the framework of an ERC Starting Grant (EVO-HAFT, ERC Grant Agreement n. 312283, Veerle Rots). The new technique was subsequently applied to an archaeological context as a part of ongoing FNRS-funded project (PDR - Palaeolithic hunting technology) led by Veerle Rots.

Scientific reference

COPPE J., TAIPALE N., ROTS V., Terminal ballistic analysis of impact fractures reveals the use of spearthrower 31 ky ago at Maisières-Canal, Belgium, Scientific Reports volume 13, Article number: 18305 (2023). DOI 10.1038/s41598-023-45554-w

Your contacts at ULiège

Justin Coppe

Noora Taipale

Veerle Rots

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