The date when stone-age humans first invented the lethal technology of spears and arrows has been set back many thousands of years with the discovery of small stone blades dating to 71,000 years ago.
Archaeologists believe the “bladelets” were used as the sharp tips for arrows or spears and were made by a relatively sophisticated technique involving the heat treatment of stone before shaping the final cutting edges.
The fine stone blades were excavated from a prehistoric site called Pinnacle Point on the southern coast of South Africa and are between 6,000 and 11,000 years older than the previous oldest known samples of spear and arrow blades, scientists said.
The discovery suggests that the invention of lethal projectile weapons came far earlier in the course of human prehistory than previously realised and that, once invented, the knowledge was passed down the generations, according to a study in Nature led by Curtis Marean of Arizona State University.
Previously, scholars thought that the technology of “projectile weapons” was first invented about 60,000 years ago and then lost for many thousands of years before being reinvented between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago.
“Every time we excavate a new site in coastal South Africa with advanced field techniques, we discover new and surprising results that push back in time the evidence for uniquely human behaviours,” Dr Marean said.
Arrows and spears were probably the key weapons that allowed anatomically modern Homo sapiens to migrate out of Africa and successfully colonise other parts of the world, including Europe where the Neanderthals lived, he said.
“When Africans left Africa and entered Neanderthal territory they had projectiles with greater killing reach and these early moderns probably also had higher levels of hyper-cooperative behaviour,” he said.
“These two traits were a knockout punch. Combine them, as modern humans did and still do, and no prey or competitor is safe. This probably laid the foundation for the expansion out of Africa of modern humans and the extinction of many prey as well as our sister species such as Neanderthals.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies