A new study published in Science Advances contextualizes the traditions and technological knowledge of early, pioneering Homo sapiens. The study demonstrates the mastery of archery by modern populations and extends the evidence of archery in Europe back by about 40,000 years.
The researchers analyzed lithic artifacts from a cave in Mediterranean France called Grotte Mandrin, which reveals the oldest occupation of modern humans on the European continent. The study focuses on a very rich level, attributed to the Neronian culture, and testifies to Homo sapiens occupations dating back 54,000 years, interposed between numerous Neanderthal occupations in the cave before and after the modern humans. That’s roughly 10,000 years earlier than what had been previously believed to be the earliest occupation of modern humans in Europe.
The research was directed by Laure Metz, an associated researcher at UMR 7269 (UMR LAMPEA, CNRS, Aix-Marseille University), and Ludovic Slimak, CNRS researcher (UMR 5608 TRACES, Toulouse Jean Jaurès University). Metz is a UConn-affiliated researcher and former post-doctoral researcher in the UConn Department of Anthropology Deep History Lab led by Professor Christian Tryon.
The study also highlights different traditions in weaponry among Neanderthals – theirs were systematically represented by heavy hasted weapons, thrusted spears, or thrown javelins, used by hand – and illustrates a profound technological contrast between Neanderthal populations and the first modern humans arriving on the European continent.
“When Neanderthals use their traditional weapons, such as a spear thrusted or thrown by hand, the first modern humans came with bow and arrows technologies,” says Metz. “Bows are used in all environments, open or closed, from the desert, and are effective for all prey sizes. Arrows can be shot quickly, with more precision. Many arrows can be carried in a quiver during a hunting foray. These technologies then allowed an incomparable efficiency in all hunting activities when Neanderthals had to hunt in close or direct contact with their prey, a process that may have been much more complex, more hazardous, and even much more dangerous when hunting large game like bison.”
The emergence in prehistory of mechanically propelled weapons, such as spear throwers and the bow-and-arrow, is commonly perceived as one of the hallmarks of the advance of modern human populations into the European continent. However, the existence of archery has always been difficult to trace.
Archery technologies are essentially based on the use of perishable materials; wood, fibers, leather, resins, and sinew, which are rarely preserved in European Paleolithic sites, making archaeological recognition of these technologies difficult. It is the flint armatures that constitute the main evidence of these weapon technologies.
Based on the analysis of these stone armatures, the recognition of archery is now well documented in Africa, dating back some 70,000 years. Some flint or deer antler armatures suggest the existence of archery from the early phases of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe more than 35,000 years ago, but the morphology and the hafting modes of these ancient armatures do not allow them to be linked to a distinct mode of propulsion, making the possible existence of archery during the European Paleolithic nearly invisible.
The demonstration of Paleolithic archery has previously been established only based on the discovery of the oldest bows and arrows found in peat bogs of Northern Europe (at the Stellmoor site in Germany, for example) and dated from 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
The analysis of over 1,000 flint points from Grotte Mandrin shows that a significant number were used as armatures for arrows propelled with a bow. The very small points – some 30% weigh hardly more than a few grams – led the researchers to exclude any other mode of ballistic propulsion other than arrows.
This study also sheds light on the weaponry of Neanderthal populations, showing that, as contemporaries of Neronian modern humans, Neanderthals did not develop mechanically propelled weapons like technologies using bows or thrusters, and continued to use their traditional weapons based on the use of massive spear-shaped points that were thrusted or thrown by hand, requiring close contact with their game.
The traditions and technologies mastered by these two populations were therefore profoundly distinct, illustrating a remarkable objective technological advantage for modern human populations during their expansion into the European continent.
However, the authors place this debate in a much broader context in which technical choices cannot be limited solely to the cognitive capacities of different human populations, referring us to the weight of traditions within these Neanderthal and modern human populations as well as to human ethologies that may have been profoundly divergent.
“Research is ongoing in Grotte Mandrin, and the last field season revealed that the site was far larger than expected and should cover an impressive surface of more than 1,000 square meters, with high density of archeological material even far from the entrance of the cave,” says Metz. “Grotte Mandrin has already totally reshaped our understanding of the last Neanderthals and the first migrations of Sapiens in continental Europe, deeply changing the way we understand this major event in the human history that saw the extinction of our last cousins, leaving for the first time the planet with only 1 hominin species.”
The team led by Slimak encompass more than 40 researchers and many analyses are under process. Slimak says the work underway encompasses more major discoveries: “We can’t wait.”