Back in 1994, something incredible happened during archaeological digs at an open-pit coal mine in Schöningen. Archaeologists found the oldest complete hunting weapons ever discovered, ancient spears and a throwing stick buried alongside old animal bones near a lake, about ten meters deep.

Over the following years, they dug up a bunch of wooden pieces dating back 300,000 years from a layer that marked the end of a warm period. These findings hinted at a spot where ancient people used to hunt near the lake.

Now, a team of scientists from the Universities of Göttingen and Reading (in the UK) and the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments in Lower Saxony has looked at all these woods using fancy techniques like 3D microscopy and micro-CT scanners. Their discoveries have been shared in the journal PNAS.

The spears and throwing sticks from the Schöningen site were used for hunting large and small game. The fragments were completed with drawings
The spears and throwing sticks from the Schöningen site were used for hunting large and small game. The fragments were completed with drawings. Credit: Volker Minkus/MINKUSIMAGES, Christa Fuchs, Matthias Vogel / Dirk Leder, Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege (NLD)

For the first time, they’ve shown us how ancient people crafted wood in new ways, like splitting it into smaller pieces. They’d sharpen these bits for hunting.

Dr. Dirk Leder, one of the researchers, said they found evidence of way more sophisticated woodwork than they expected. It seems these humans were turning selected logs into spears and throwing sticks, while fixing up any broken tools right there on the spot.

On the lakeshore, they found at least 20 of these spears and sticks. This discovery doubled what we knew about wooden weapons from that time. Dr. Tim Koddenberg from the University of Göttingen was amazed by how well-preserved these pieces were, saying it let them see woodworking techniques in incredible detail.

Curator Anna-Laura Krogmeier and Dr. Tim Koddenberg examine a wooden spear in the Schöningen Research Museum
Curator Anna-Laura Krogmeier and Dr. Tim Koddenberg examine a wooden spear in the Schöningen Research Museum. Credit: Jens Lehmann / Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege (NLD)

The variety of techniques they used, along with all the different weapons and tools they made, shows just how important wood was to them. It’s rare to find wood from way back then, so these Schöningen objects are really special.

They tell us these ancient people had lots of experience working with wood and knew their stuff. Professor Thomas Terberger, who led the project, thinks Schöningen is a crucial spot in human history because it’s where we can see top-quality preserved wood from so long ago.

So, Schöningen is like a treasure trove for learning about early humans, and now, it’s even been nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The two wooden chaîne opératoires of Schöningen 13 II-4. (Top) ChO1-Round wooden artifacts. (Bottom) ChO2-Split wood artifacts
The two wooden chaîne opératoires of Schöningen 13 II-4. (Top) ChO1-Round wooden artifacts. (Bottom) ChO2-Split wood artifacts. Credit: Dirk Leder / Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege (NLD)

Sources

Georg-August-Universität Göttingen | Dirk Leder, Jens Lehmann, et al., The wooden artifacts from Schöningen’s Spear Horizon and their place in human evolution. PNAS 121 (15), doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2320484121


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