Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Palaeolithic Archers? Volume 50 Number 3, May/June 1997
by Paul G. Bahn

Reexamination of human bones from a 13,000-year-old Upper Palaeolithic burial in San Teodoro Cave, Sicily, has led to the startling discovery of a small fragment of flint, probably part of an arrowhead, embedded in the pelvis of what is thought to have been an adult female. There is widespread evidence of arrows in Eurasia and North Africa in the following Mesolithic period, including preserved arrow shafts from Stellmoor, Germany, dating to about 8500 B.C., but Palaeolithic evidence has been ambiguous. Arrowlike images on animals and humanoid figures in cave paintings could be spears or something else entirely.

Archaeologist P.-F. Fabbri of the Università degli Studi di Pisa made the discovery while studying the bones, which were excavated in 1942. The flint had passed through the soft tissue and penetrated the bone. The wound caused inflammation and an abscess, and finally thickening of the bone around the flint, all of which indicates the woman survived the injury. X-ray images showed that the flint was part of a small blade retouched along one side. Presumably the small flint, pointed or triangular in shape, was one of several set into the arrow shaft to form a point, known from Mesolithic examples. Judging by its size and shape, the flint is far more likely to have been an arrowhead than the tip of a spear. Another arrowhead is known from the vertebra of a child buried in the Grotte des Enfants, on the Italian coast, dating, like San Teodoro, to around 13,000 years ago. Dominique Gambier of Bordeaux University is studying that skeleton.

The two Italian arrowheads are the only known indications of interhuman violence in this period in Europe. A deep cut in a woman's skull from the French rock-shelter of Cro-Magnon is now known to have been caused by a workman's pick in 1868.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America