Documentary: The Real Neanderthal

I’m really excited that I was asked to be a part of this CBC documentary, as part of The Nature of Things series. It comes out (in Canada…) this Friday. While I haven’t seen it in its entirety yet, there’s a nice clip here of Harry Hughes throwing a replica of Schöningen Spear II. You can see that Harry, Team GB’s star javelin thrower, hits the target with ease up to 15 metres. Then with some practice, he manages to hit it at 20 metres too. We discuss the importance of skill and training, and what this might mean for hominins who were equipped with simple wooden spears as hunting weapons. It looks like the documentary explores many of the more recent findings on Neanderthal behaviours and technologies, packed with loads of expert commentary.



Did prehistoric women hunt? New research suggests so

Artist impression of a prehistoric woman hunting. Matthew Verdolivo (UC Davis IET Academic Technology Services)

For a long time, it was assumed that hunting in prehistoric societies was primarily carried out by men. Now a new study adds to a body of evidence challenging this idea. The research reports the discovery of a female body, buried alongside hunting tools, in the Americas some 9,000 years ago.

The woman, discovered in the Andean highlands, was dubbed Wilamaya Patjxa individual 6, or “WPI6”. She was found with her legs in a semi-flexed position, with the collection of stone tools placed carefully next to them. These included projectile points – tools that were likely used to tip lightweight spears thrown with an atlatl(also called a spear thrower). The authors argue that such projectile points were used for hunting large animals.

WPI6 was between 17 and 19 years old at time of death. It was an analysis of substances known as “peptides” in her teeth – which are markers for biological sex – that showed that she was female. There were also large mammal bones in the burial fill, demonstrating the significance of hunting in her society.

Picture of the excavations at Wilamaya Patjxa.
Excavations at Wilamaya Patjxa. Randall Haas

The authors of the study, published in Science Advances, also reviewed evidence of other skeletons buried around the same period in the Americas, looking specifically at graves containing similar tools associated with big-game hunting. They found that of the 27 skeletons for which sex could be determined, 41% were likely female.

The authors propose that this may mean that big-game hunting was indeed carried out by both men and women in hunter-gatherer groups at that time in the Americas.

Competing hypotheses

This idea goes against a hypothesis, dating back to the 1960s, known as the “Man-The-Hunter model”, which is increasingly being debunked. It suggests that hunting, and especially big game hunting, was primarily, if not exclusively, undertaken by male members of past hunter-gatherer societies.

The hypothesis is based on a few different lines of evidence. Probably most significantly, it considers recent and present-day hunter-gatherer societies to try to understand how those in the deeper past may have been organised.

The stereotypical view of hunter-gatherer groups is that they involve a gendered division of labour, with men hunting and women being more likely to stay nearer home with young children, or fish and forage, though even then there is some variation. For example, among Agta foragers in the Philippines women are primary hunters rather than assistants.

Some present day hunter-gatherers still use atlatls today, and some people also enjoy using atlatls in competitive throwing events, with women and children regularly taking part. Archaeologists studying data from these events suggest that atlatls may well have been equalisers – facilitating hunting by both women and men, possibly because they reduce the importance of body size and strength.

The new study further debunks the hypothesis, adding to a few previous archaeological findings. For example, at the 34,000-year-old site of Sunghir in Russia, archaeologists discovered the burial of two youngsters – one of whom was likely a girl of around nine to 11 years old. Both individuals had physical abnormalities, and were buried with 16 mammoth ivory spears – an incredible offering of what were probably valuable hunting tools.

Randall Haas
The Andes Mountains. Picture of the Andes Mountains.

In 2017, a famous burial of a Viking warrior from Sweden, discovered early in the 20th century and long assumed to be male, was discovered to be biologically female. This finding caused a significant and somewhat surprising amount of debate, and points to how our own modern ideas of gender roles can affect interpretations of more recent history too.

It has been argued that distinguishing between “boys jobs and girls jobs”, as one former British prime minister put it, could have evolutionary advantages. For example, it can allow pregnant and lactating mothers to stay near to a home base, keeping themselves and youngsters protected from harm. But we are increasingly learning that this model is far too simplistic.

With hunting being a keystone to survival for many highly mobile hunter-gatherer groups, community-wide participation also makes good evolutionary sense. The past, as some say, is a foreign country, and the more evidence we have, the more variable human behaviour looks to have been.

Annemieke Milks, Honorary Research Fellow, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Two Sticks: What a new find from Schöningen tells us about Pleistocene hominins

Yesterday the discovery of a second short wooden stick from the site of Schöningen 13 II-4 (Germany) was published in Nature: Ecology and Evolution. Schöningen 13 II-4 dates to around 300,000 years ago and is best known for its collection of complete and nearly complete wooden spears and the remains of a large quantity of butchered animals including horses. In the initial publication of the Schöningen spears in 1997, Hartmut Thieme – who conducted the initial rescue excavations at the edge of the lignite mine – also published the first shorter wooden stick. He proposed that it was a ‘throwing stick’ for use in hunting. Throwing sticks (also called ‘rabbit sticks’ or ‘hunting sticks’) are thrown rotationally at prey, rather than overhead (note: the term ‘throwing stick’ is sometimes used in older literature to mean spearthrowers/atlatls, used to launch lightweight spears, and are not the same thing). Many throwing sticks are curved, like boomerangs, but others are straight like those from Schöningen.  

Figure 1. Przewalski horses, similar to the horses butchered at Schöningen 300,000 years ago, near the Palaeon in Schöningen. Photo credit: Matt Pope.

Thieme’s discovery of a Middle Pleistocene ‘throwing stick’ has remained an anomaly until now. Although as many as ten wooden spears from Schöningen, measuring different lengths and thicknesses, have been published none are as short as the two double pointed sticks. The first throwing stick found measures 77.5 cm, and the second is 64.5 cm long. In contrast, the complete (and nearly complete) wooden artefacts designated as ‘spears’ are between 1.84 and 2.53 metres long (as a reference, modern javelins are 2.2 – 2.7 metres). Some alternatives to a ‘throwing stick’ for the first stick included proposals that it may have functioned as a digging stick, or more intriguingly, a child’s spear. As both ends are pointed this possibility always intrigued me.

Two Tasmanian Aboriginal throwing sticks, held at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Image from this museum guide.

Children can be difficult to identify in the Palaeolithic record, though the evidence is richer than you might think. We see evidence of Palaeolithic children learning, playing and participating in social gatherings via the stone tool record, footprints and finger marks in caves, and in scaled-down weapons. Most recently, Robert Losey and Emily Hull published evidence of scaled down atlatl equipment from the Oregon Coast, likely designed for children. In contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, children begin playing with toy weapons in very early childhood often using children’s versions or scaled down of adult hunting tools. Interviews conducted during fieldwork this summer with my colleague Sheina Lew-Levy for our project investigating how BaYaka children learn to hunt with spears shows that children are instructed by adults not just in acquiring hunting skills such as recognizing animal signs, but also how to walk with and throw their spears (Milks & Lew-Levy in prep). Like Chabu children, the younger BaYaka children use spears designed for their use until adolescence. Accuracy with spears is a likely difficult skill to acquire, requiring many years to master, and therefore the idea of scaled down equipment remains as possible for Middle Pleistocene Homo as for our own species. The authors of this throwing stick paper don’t further address the possibility that these two sticks from Schöningen could have functioned as a scaled down spears. I have always been curious whether the variability in the Schöningen spear sizes reflects scaling for different body sizes and/or strength capabilities. An artistic reconstruction of the site, which paper Jordi Serangeli worked with the artist to produce, proposes that all members of the Schöningen society, including women and children, may have participated in the manufacture of spears, in hunting and in butchering (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Illustration by Thomas Berendt for Fenster in die Archäologie showing all ages and genders participating in hunting and butchering

As exciting as this possibility is, if these two sticks were scaled down spears for children we would expect the scale of the diameter might also be reduced to fit a child’s hand span and grip, not just their body height and mass. The diameters of the two sticks (3.0 and 2.9 cm) are similar to the thinner Schöningen spear diameters, and therefore the sticks are not scaled down in every respect. The other argument against this interpretation is the potential ‘fluting’ on the second stick, and the flattening of the points of both artefacts. Fluting and flattening of the points are not features seen on the spears, and therefore if accepted as such, the presence of these features undermines interpretations that they functioned as miniaturized kids’ spears.

The authors have several lines of evidence supporting the interpretation as a throwing stick. They indicate that there is damage on the wood that is consistent with impact damage. Veerle Rots, best known for her work on lithic use-wear analysis, has provided macro and microanalysis of the damage. Analytical work on Palaeolithic wood tools, in particular use wear and damage on wood, is in its infancy; we have very few experimental reference samples that allow us to make good comparative analyses relating damage to function. Those that I am aware of relate to digging stick use, such as the Neanderthal digging sticks from Aranbaltza III (Spain) (check out the 3D model they made available on SketchFab!) and Poggetti Vecchi (Italy). These, and analyses of later Neolithic wooden tools, as well as examples from South American Paleoindian sites, are paving the way for better understanding how wood may be altered during manufacture and use, but a lot remains to be understood about the manufacturing and use of Palaeolithic wooden tools. To my knowledge, no systematic studies on dynamic impacts to wood have been undertaken, although I have multiple examples of macro-damage on wooden spears when used in thrusting and throwing (for example see Fig. 4). Dynamic impacts for wooden tools could include throwing as throwing sticks, throwing and thrusting as spears (including accidental impacts with poorly aimed throws!), clubbing an animal, beating trees for fruit or nuts, cracking nuts open, etc. The use of wooden tools for all of these activities are evidenced in the ethnographic literature, and/or by primates (see this neat research on chimpanzee wood clubs by Dr. Lydia Luncz)! While experimental work will help to connect the damage on the shaft with throwing stick use, I am inclined to agree that this is the most likely interpretation.

Figure 4. Tip damage to a spear replica used in throwing.

The authors also reference Tasmanian throwing sticks as being similar in size and shape to the Schöningen finds. The original publication, by the German geologist Fritz Noetling, has poor photographs and some basic measurements of some of these tools which are held in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (which are better-imaged in Fig. 2). Although Noetling discusses these as having been thrown, both his and other accounts of these tools (also called ‘waddies’) suggest they were used multifunctionally as both missiles and hunting clubs. As the authors of this throwing stick study also mention, while there is not evidence of the exploitation of smaller game and flight animals at Schöningen, the existence of such a technology also helps to understand how prey exploited at the roughly contemporaneous site of Bolomor Cave (Spain), including rabbits, tortoise and birds, may have been hunted. Other options, such as scavenging and trapping of these animals remain, but these sticks are now the best-evidenced hunting tool for small prey.

Probably the most exciting aspect for me of this second find being consistent with a thrown weapon is that it contributes to building evidence that we aren’t the only species of Homo who were capable and regular throwers. Neil Roach and colleagues have argued for some years now that throwing was likely part of hominin capabilities as early as Homo erectus. With evidence that at least some of the Schöningen spears were designed to be accurate projectiles impacting with high energies at medium distances, and evidence from Tourville-La-Riviere (France) of a deltoid muscle enthesis on Neanderthal remains suggesting regular throwing, I believe that the evidence that Middle Pleistocene humans were employing throwing for hunting is now well-supported. The discovery is also fascinating because it indicates that Middle Pleistocene hominins were capable of manufacturing a well-designed, aerodynamic, flexible hunting kit entirely out of wood.

Here are some links for additional reading on the discovery:

Research Center Schöningen


American Museum of Natural History: my child’s perspective

Today I am sharing a co-authored post. My eight year old daughter and I review our recent visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We’ve visited museums together in many countries, and she usually enjoys them. She had a very negative reaction to the AMNH, and although I was surprised, she had some fair points. This post begins with her critique, and I follow this with thoughts of my own.

Her Critique

I did not like the museum because in the animal area all the animals were stuffed and lots of them were from Africa and many are endangered so it is really upsetting, they also had lots of Giraffes and they are nearly extinct .

Just to think that if they had not killed those animals all those years ago we might have more of a population than we have now.

Display of lions in the Hall of Mammals

In the Central America part it is unclear how they got these artefacts so therefore some of them might have been taken from there home town were they were worshiped

Outside the museum on the top of the building there are three words, Knowledge, Truth and Vision. That last word vision they did not have any vision.

There is a statue outside the building of Theodore Roosevelt and one Native American and one African. It gives the museum a sense of racism because Roosevelt is on a horse and they are not so it shows that people think white people are more important than people of colour which is not true.

“Statue: American Museum of Natural History”by Can Pac Swire is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

It was so dark [in the museum] I could hardly see, it could have been a bit brighter.

Also there could have been more people in each room who could tell everybody what things meant and show them who people were.

I liked the time line of space it really showed how long ago the big bang really was.

My critique

I want to start by saying that I have problems of my own with this museum, particularly in relation to the inclusion of cultural material in a natural history museum. However, I took her to the museum not having voiced these concerns, thinking she would enjoy it (and I certainly wouldn’t have spent that kind of money on something she’d end up hating).

I explained to her that the animals displayed had been there for many decades, and that most natural history museums have ‘stuffed animals’. We discussed her points about how inappropriate it feels to look at these in a time where the world is facing a mass extinction event, and where many of those animals displayed are at risk. The darkness of the Hall of Mammals certainly added to her negative reaction. Just last week I was at the Natural History Museum in London for a work meeting, and I noticed the freshly painted and well-lit displays of birds, which certainly felt less old-fashioned and less sinister. So better lighting, some additional information boards discussing present habitat pressures, conservation status and global efforts to tackle problems would go a long way to improving that exhibit.

In cultural rooms, I found the mixture of archaeological material culture and ethnographic displays in the different galleries problematic. I was extremely disappointed to find in the Hall of African Peoples a mixture of pre-sapiens Stone Age artefacts and recent cultural objects. My husband remarked that the darkness of this room contributed to it feeling like it represented colonialist perspectives of non-European cultures.

In all ‘World Museums’ there are objects that many would consider to be stolen, and so when my daughter asked me where the artefacts in the Central American Hall came from, I had to admit that it was unclear in the displays how these objects were acquired. Even children can be conscious of the ethics behind museum collections. We have to continue to confront the history behind how these came to be in such museums and strongly consider repatriation.

There is currently a temporary exhibition about the Roosevelt statue at the entrance. We looked briefly at this, and she watched part of the video. I thought it was interesting – given the fact that the museum is reflecting on the statue and the connotations of racism – that her takeaway from the exhibition is that the statue should be taken down. That exhibition was the best part of my experience, because it demonstrates progression at the museum and helped me think about different perspectives. The retention of problematic statues in public spaces is an ongoing argument, and perhaps explanatory plaques alongside the statue would make the exploration of its issues more prominent (and more importantly free!) to anyone passing and entering the museum.

I was surprised by how much a child could pick up about the messages museums send about the past and present, as I’m certain I had no such conscious thoughts myself when visiting that museum at her age. I expect that curators working on renovations at the museum (many areas are currently shut) are well aware of these issues. However, it is striking that of the areas we visited, the displays and underlying attitudes remain old-fashioned and out of touch. The human past and present needs to be contextualised in more respectful and conscientious ways, and museums also have a role in confronting present-day crises in the natural world. Natural history museums are in a particularly privileged position to tackle such issues, and I hope that ongoing renovation projects will reflect this.

Further Reading: What does it mean to decolonize a museum? By Elisa Schoenberger

In London, Natural History Museums Confront Their Colonial Histories By Sabrina Imbler

The Arch & Anth Podcast

This is just a short post to let people know about my friend Dr. Michael Rivera’s new adventure – The Arch & Anth Podcast! Michael is a biological anthropologist who studies human behaviour through skeletal remains. He’s started the podcast – going out three times a week – because he’s passionate about science communication, archaeology, and anthropology! What a perfect title then.

I ‘met’ Michael initially through Twitter, at which point he invited me to come and speak at University of Cambridge Biological Anthropology Seminar Series. He also put me in touch with Sheina Lew-Levy (recently ‘doctored’!), with whom I’m now collaborating on an exciting project this summer to study how the BaYaka learn to hunt with spears. It’s a great example of how Twitter isn’t just a time waster but can be an amazing resource for making connections and building collaborations.

The blog already has some fascinating episodes from a wide range of scholars, like how agriculture shaped our jaw bones, an interview with James Cole who studies giant handaxes and human cannibalism, and many more goodies (including yours truly talking about…you guessed it – spears!). Happy listening.