Two Sticks! What a new find from Schöningen tells us about Middle 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:

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