Remains of the oldest known stone-tipped throwing spears, described in a new paper, are so ancient that they actually predate the earliest known fossils for our species by 85,000 years.
There are a couple possible implications, and both are mind-blowing. The first is that our species could be much older than previously thought, which would forever change the existing human family tree.
The second, and more likely at this point, is that a predecessor species to ours was extremely crafty and clever, making sophisticated tools long before Homo sapiens emerged.
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Homo heidelbergensis, aka Heidelberg Man, lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia from at least 600,000 years ago. He clearly got around, and many think this species was the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe and Asia.
The new paper, published in the latest PLoS ONE, focuses on the newly identified stone-tipped spears, which date to 280,000 years ago. They were found at an Ethiopian Stone Age site known as Gademotta.
Sahle, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Berkeley's Human Evolution Research Center, and his team analyzed the weapons. They determined that the spears were made from obsidian found near the site. The toolmakers had to craft the pointy spearhead shapes and spear shafts. They then needed to attach the points securely to the shafts. Even today, all of this would require skill, concentration and multiple steps.
Could a Steve Jobs-like innovator within the Heidelberg Man set have come up with this useful tool and production process?
Possibly, according to Sahle.
"Technological advances were not necessarily associated with anatomical changes (among Homo species)," he said. "The advances might have started earlier."
The intelligence needed to create such tools could therefore have predated our present body type. Based on the recreations I've seen of Heidelberg Man (and Heidelberg Woman), they did look very much like us. They were known to have been fairly tall and muscular.
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As for why innovative tools from this period are known only from this site in Ethiopia, Sahle has some ideas.
"High-quality raw materials were nearby, so those could have allowed for the full expression of technological skills," he said.
"Second, a bigger population was supported at the site," he continued. With more individuals around, there would have been a greater chance for the spread of innovative ideas. If there was indeed a Steve Jobs-type in the mix, he would have been able to influence more individuals and perhaps even created a prehistoric spear-making assembly line of sorts.
"Thirdly, there was a mega lake at the site," Sahle said. "It might have attracted stable occupations there, further fueling technological advances."
It's not clear yet what the prehistoric ancestral humans were hunting with the spears. A mishmash of animal remains was found, but the researchers haven't been able to tease them apart yet.
What is clear is that the spears were thrown from a distance at prey, instead of thrust into victims, Neanderthal-style.
Photo: TD White