Archaeologists in Belgium have made an incredible discovery that changes our understanding of prehistoric technology. Researchers at the University of Liege’s TraceoLab found evidence that hunter-gatherers were using long-range weapons over 31,000 years ago.

This discovery predates the oldest known harpoons by about 10,000 years and shows that ancient humans innovated powerful new hunting techniques much earlier than we thought.

The site where this evidence was uncovered is called Maisières-Canal. Located along the Haine River in southern Belgium, the area was inhabited by prehistoric people over 31,000 years ago. Through careful analysis at TraceoLab, researchers identified tool marks on stone spear points that match marks left by an ancient weapon called a spear-thrower.

A spear-thrower, also known as an atlatl, is a tool used to extend your arm’s power and throw spears much farther. It works like a fishing rod, using leverage to propel spears up to 80 meters away.

This allowed ancient hunters to take down prey from a safe distance, changing how humans interacted with the animals they hunted.Controlling animals from a distance likely impacted social structures and diets among prehistoric societies.

Until now, identifying these early long-range weapons has been difficult because they were made of organic materials like wood that rarely survive in the archaeological record. Stone spear points are more common finds but hard to definitively tie to specific weapon types. TraceoLab researchers developed a new way to analyze the fractures left on spear points after impact. They conducted experiments firing replicas of ancient spear points from spears, bows, and spear-throwers to study how each weapon leaves unique marks.

By carefully comparing the archaeological artifacts to the experimental samples under high magnification, the scientists were able to match tool marks on the 31,000 year old points from Maisières-Canal to samples shot from a spear-thrower. This strong correlation provides the oldest direct evidence yet of spear-thrower use in Europe. The breakthrough forensic technique is helping trace the real history of long-range hunting technologies.

This discovery shows prehistoric peoples achieved important innovations much earlier than expected. Continued research by TraceoLab promises to reveal even more about how our ancient ancestors lived and hunted.

Advances in archaeological science are expanding our views of prehistory and human development. Intriguing clues left on stone points from 31,000 years ago now give students and scientists alike a glimpse into the innovative spirit and complex tool use of our distant ancestors.


University of Liege | Coppe, J., Taipale, N. & Rots, V. Terminal ballistic analysis of impact fractures reveals the use of spearthrower 31 ky ago at Maisières-Canal, Belgium. Sci Rep 13, 18305 (2023).

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