Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
World's Oldest Spears Volume 50 Number 3, May/June 1997
by Arlette P. Kouwenhoven

Radiocarbon dating has confirmed that three wooden spears found in a coal mine in Schöningen, near Hannover, Germany, are the oldest complete hunting weapons ever found. Some 380,000 to 400,000 years old, the six- to 7.5-foot javelins were found in soil whose acids had been neutralized by a high concentration of chalk near the coal pit. They suggest that early man was able to hunt, and was not just a scavenger. The development of such weapons may have been crucial to the settling of Stone Age northern Europe, whose cold climate and short daylight hours limited hunting.

The spears show design and construction skills previously attributed only to modern humans. "They are really high tech," says Hartmut Thieme of the Institut für Denkmalpflege in Hannover, who discovered them while excavating in advance of a rotary shovel digger used in the mine. "They are made of very tough Picea [spruce] trunk and are similarly carved." Their frontal center of gravity suggests they were used as javelins, says Thieme.

The only comparable find dating to the same period is a yew lance tip from Clacton-on-Sea, England, discovered in 1911. Thieme says the Schöningen discovery is important because it proves that the Clacton lance tip was not just a chance find and that spears were probably being made in large quantities. The Clacton lance tip suggested that people may have been hunting; the three spears from Schöningen now make it fairly certain that they were not merely scavenger-gatherers. That early man hunted big game is supported by the recent discovery of a fossilized rhinoceros shoulder blade with a projectile wound at Boxgrove, England, dated to 500,000 years ago. Studies revealed the wound was probably caused by a spear. As paleoanthropologist Wil Roebroeks of the University of Leiden points out, however, "we still haven't determined whether early man hunted in large groups, or whether they used pits to trap the animals first."

Thousands of pieces of horse, elephant, and deer bone were also found at Schöningen. The bones showed cut marks from stone flints found with grooved wooden tools that probably held the flints. If Thieme can prove the flints were hafted in the wooden tools, they will be the oldest known composite tools in the world.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America