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Beyond Stone & Bone

What Old Arrowheads Tell Us about the Origins of Modern Thinking
by Heather Pringle
November 3, 2010

The great American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was one of the fathers of modern architecture, and for that I am immensely grateful. I love the sleek, clean, powerful lines of Mies’s buildings, the fearlessness simplicity of his skyscrapers.  But even more than the beauty of his buildings was the beauty of his aesthetic.  It was Mies, after all, who once said, “God is in the details.”

Mies was thinking of architecture, of course, but I sometimes think that this aphorism was tailormade for the field of archaeology, a discipline of detail. Sometimes all these patiently gleaned details add up to, well, little more than a pile of details.  But on occasion, they make something beautiful and elegant and important, like one of Mies’s famous glass walls. And so it was recently, with a study that two archaeologists completed on a collection of 64,000-year-old stone tools from Sibudu Cave, a site perched on a forested cliff some 40 kilometers north of Durban, South Africa.

By studying a particular class of stone tools from the site—tools that looked a lot like arrowheads—University of Johannesburg archaeologist Marlize Lombard and private scholar Laurel Phillipson, ended up telling us a lot about the origins of modern human behavior.

First,  a little background. Until recently, many archaeologists believed in an event they dubbed the Great Leap Forward, or the Upper Paleolithic Revolution. Some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, they theorized, Homo sapiens sapiens underwent some kind of neural reorganization—perhaps due to a genetic mutation–and suddenly  became accomplished artists, jewelry makers,  fishers,  and sophisticated tool makers.

Dissenting archaeologists, however, suggested that the transition to behavioral modernity was a gradual affair unfolding over hundreds of thousands of years.  And recently evidence of a slow transition has accumulated. At Blombos Cave in South Africa, for example,  archaeologists found 75,000-year-old shell beads,  80,000 year-old bone tools,  as well as possible evidence of fishing—all indicators pointing to modern thinking and behavior.

Now Lombard and Phillipson have come up with superb evidence of a much more sophisticated human behavior—the making of bows and arrows– 64,000 years ago.  Examining a collection of artifacts, largely from Sibudu Cave, the pair measured the 79 small stone points to see whether they fit into the range of arrowheads.  They did.  Then they looked for characteristic signs of impact damage, analyzed microresidues along the edges for traces of animal tissue,  and tested the backings for plant resins used to haft them. Everything pointed clearly to their use as arrowheads.

Lastly, the two researchers drew up a list of the technologies early humans needed in order to make bows and arrows.  These ranged from the ability to make long strong cords and formal knots to the skill of harnessing the latent energy in flexed wood.  Early modern humans, concluded Lombard and Phillipson,  could be shown to possess nearly all of these in South Africa by 64,000 years ago.

I’m now convinced that bow-and-arrow hunting humans roamed the shadowy forests of South Africa 64,000 years ago–thousands of years before the proposed Great Leap Forward.

God, it seems, really is in the details.

Photo of archaeologist Marlize Lombard at Sibudu Cave.  Photo courtesy of Marlize Lombard.

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

27 comments for "What Old Arrowheads Tell Us about the Origins of Modern Thinking"

  • Reply posted by Malcolm Sender (November 3, 2010, 9:35 am):

    The so-called “Great Leap Forward” was postulated by paleoanthropologists to help account for the seemingly sudden appearance of modern man, with his more highly developed material and aesthetic culture, among the long-established Neanderthals about 40-50,000 years ago. However with subsequent discoveries, the earliest known dates for the appearance of modern man have been pushed back well beyond 100,000 years ago. This would allow ample time for the monumental development of the bow and arrow. The “Great Leap Forward” may indeed have occurred, just much earlier than previously thought. More likely, there was no sudden great leap forward, just a long evolutionary process.


  • Reply posted by David Ericson (November 4, 2010, 9:53 am):

    Interesting. Thank you. I’m a writer and a carpenter, not an archaeologist, and am wondering what in this evidence would distinguish these possible arrowheads used with a bow from the points used with an atlatl. The size is often different, I understand. What else?


  • Reply posted by Jewels Vern (November 5, 2010, 3:49 am):

    A very long investigation of history according to ancient myths. The study is closely involved with transitions in the languages and cultural concepts in early man. For example there was a definite time when a story teller first demonstrated an awareness of what his audience was thinking as he spoke.


  • Reply posted by A. E. Figueredo (November 5, 2010, 5:22 am):

    I am an archaeologist with passing acquaintance with both atlatls or spear throwers and bows and arrows. Generally, arrowheads are smaller than javelin or spear heads, but this is not always the case. Sometimes, small atlatls are used for fishing or hunting fowl, and the javelin heads are proportionately smaller. In some places, longbows were used and the arrowheads were proportionately larger. One has to be careful deciding whether one is heading an arrow or a javelin, but generally, as I said, one should be smaller than the other.


  • Reply posted by Fred (November 7, 2010, 10:28 am):

    The size of a stone projectile point is not a clear indicator of how the point was used. Here in Texas, there are dart points (like Ensors), that are OFTEN smaller than arrowheads (like Perdiz).
    I am also wondering what the last comment means – God is in the details?


  • Reply posted by Anthony Valentin (November 8, 2010, 11:10 am):

    The author used the term “Homo Sapien Sapien”. It is my understanding that this term is outdated and organizations like the AIA have abandoned the use of it. I am aware of the scientific and historical reasoning behind the move, but wonder how this article was published on the AIA website without the term being edited or a footnote provided.


  • Reply posted by Mike (November 9, 2010, 4:03 pm):



  • Reply posted by Mihailo.M.Ristic (November 9, 2010, 4:32 pm):

    Concerning the issue of symbolic thinking and symbolization I would tend to agree with all those who contend that the great leap in the development of man’s cognitive skills occurred much earlier and that it was a very slow process indeed (gradual development and constant perfection going on for hundreds of thousands of years with homo sapiens’ direct ancestors, and even with our ancestral primal apes where their gradual development went on for millions of years). Careful observation (on behalf of all our ancestors)of the hunting and survival techniques of other natural species in the environment had obviously been going on literally for millions of years I would dare conjecture (logically) especially with such developed abilities and skills of perception among the primates. Why is it so difficult to accept the fact that all mentation and cognitive skills developed gradually through time through the process of observation, pondering/contemplation and then trial and error? We must not forget the important discoveries by archeologists of ostrich-eggs in Africa with geometric, abstract markings (around 70.000 years ago)that attest to developed forms of cognition from those early periods. Hypothesized verbal and pre-literary narratives of “people” (homo sapiens and Neanderthals, etc) from various family units/ communities /tribes/clans/of the various paleolithic periods also prove the existence of high levels of symbolic thinking (articulated verbal signs, sign language, and rudimentary language use). According to my own chronologies (based on the research of all of our predecessors throughout the world and logical inference)it is very probable that all these cognitive processes had been developing over extremely long periods of time. We must not forget that with the constant new archeological and scientific discoveries (more precise and more comprehensive dating methods) our notion of the past and history are undergoing almost daily revision. Take the findings at Golbeki tepe (older than 9000 BC) in Turkey for example, with all those splendid structures, and stone carvings, or the fact that musical instruments have been found dating back to 32.000 BC (in Germany). All this, among so many other discoveries is sure proof that we are dealing with gradualism/evolution and that we urgently need to revise all of our “timelines”.


  • Reply posted by Marsha (November 9, 2010, 5:10 pm):

    “God is in the details” really turned me off. I thought we were talking science and discovery of early man!


  • Reply posted by Dan (November 9, 2010, 5:35 pm):

    I reject out of hand that a change in tool/weapon-making technique must be indicative of some actual change in neural architecture.

    Given the ability of even modern day religions to determine rigid patterns of what, where, and when concerning adherents’ behaviors associated with eating certain foods, drinking certain brews, wearing certain clothes, performing certain tasks, and in such cases as the Amish refusing even to incorporate such innoccuous things as buttons or zippers– how much more strongly could inherited cultural forms have been enforced through taboo and rigid group authority during the Paleolithic when traditional cultures determined every aspect of life in this world and the next over incredibly long periods of time.

    Clearly, until some hard DNA evidence is able to prove some direct link between changes in neural circuitry impacting specific aspects of cognition, and directly resulting in particular transformation in the material mode of production– it must be remembered that the absence of evidence, in this case of novel kinds of tools/weapons at certain times and in certain places, is not evidence of absence, in this case of the potential to change such social practices being present physiologically in the brain’s architecture for many tens or even hundreds of millennia before the actual changes in social practice occurred.


  • Reply posted by Kathleen Millar (November 10, 2010, 4:12 am):

    I do not feel the discussion should be lost in the details of hunting point size. These obviously vary due to the size of the local wildlife being hunted and the strength of the natural fibres used to make shafts or staves. The important point is that these hunting tools took human imagination and ingenuity to create and therefore are a good indication of the homo sapiens’ psychological development.


  • Reply posted by FRANK NEE (November 10, 2010, 4:48 am):



  • Reply posted by G. Rubens (November 10, 2010, 6:27 am):

    Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe was German not American.


  • Reply posted by Tom Lake (November 10, 2010, 2:30 pm):

    Interesting article, but I do not agree with much of it. For example, as the author writes: “I’m now convinced that bow-and-arrow hunting humans roamed the shadowy forests of South Africa 64,000 years ago thousands of years before the proposed Great Leap Forward.”
    As far as I can tell, there is no evidence of bow and arrow technology in the Americas, for example, before about AD 500. Or in northeast Asia from where the people immigrated. If Homo sapiens sapiens was using the bow and arrow 64K years ago, how could that technology have taken 63K years to reach the Americas? Perhaps the author is using the terms “arrowhead” and “bow and arrow” as euphemisms for “dart points” and a dart-thrower like the “atlatl?” These seem to have been around much longer.
    The author also talk about the shape, size and use-wear of stone artifacts as a means of determining if they are “arrowheads.” It is much less about size, even shape, and much more about the material from which they are made. Not all sotne, regardless of size and shape, can be “arrowheads.” That is Step 1. The rest follows. Also, not all “arrowhead-shaped” points were hafted for “projecting.” Many of them were short-hafted for hand use as knives. This is why archaeologists rarely use the word “arrowhead,” finding projectile points, or just points, much more descriptive of their function.
    Tom Lake


  • Reply posted by Gary (November 12, 2010, 6:02 am):

    Fred, you must missed the “great leap” if you don’t understand a simple statement of “God is in the details”. I to be reborn into the human race.


  • Reply posted by Robin Thompson (November 13, 2010, 1:39 pm):

    When was woman’s great leap forward? Perhaps we are still waiting for it?


  • Reply posted by Evan Elliott (November 15, 2010, 4:41 pm):

    I concur Tome Lake. While it may take considerable mental ability to plan and make an atlatl, I am not convinced by the evidence for bow and arrow technology. That these points fall into the size range of arrowheads manufactured tens of thousands of years later is not evidence of the bow, rather some sort of thrown dart, which may or may not have been assisted by an atlatl. Since there are atlatls dating back to the Upper Paleolithic, I am willing to believe that this MAY represent a very early use of the technology. The oldest bows, by contrast, were fragments from Stellmoor in Germany, dated to about 10,000 years BP. And again, to echo Tom, this really is only evidence of small, hafted bifaces, which may or may not been used as projectiles.


  • Reply posted by L Courtland (November 19, 2010, 5:51 pm):

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, such as ‘God is in the details,’ and it certainly seems like ‘God’ is hard-wired in the human mind. I have no idea WHY. But I think it’s important to keep some distance between Science and Religion. Science is a learning process, there’s always new discoveries, as long as we keep our eyes open and keep searching. Religion is a belief system, and when people start believing, they stop ‘thinking’ and learning. I read somewhere, a long time ago, that the root word of religion means ‘to regiment’ as in forcing people to think alike. We don’t want to do that!
    I think the first projectile points were made by natural events, like a rock slide, or freezing and thawing, and some genius used them as tools and started making their own. Kind of simple. That’s my opinion.


  • Reply posted by Ben Brice (November 20, 2010, 9:19 am):

    Great article, what amazes me is that modern day scientists are still out of touch with the facts that ancient civilizations were in some ways more advance socially than what we give them credit for!….all evidence of their brilliant technologies and social skills were unfortunately lost forever, dued to thousands of years of wars, geological calamities or probaly greedy treasure hunters….hmm, makes you wonder just how much important ancient artifacts are sitting in the homes of the rich, elite and collectors of black market antiquities!……..we need more professionals like Heather Pringle who are able to think out the box and create new ways of exploring and researching…..instead of learning the field by reading old text books!……..Great Work Heather!……


  • Reply posted by Eric Combs (January 10, 2011, 9:39 pm):

    I happened across this article and read it and the posted comments. I enjoyed the various views put forth. One question comes to mind, however:
    how do comments about “abandoning the use of Homo Sapiens Sapiens”, the fact that van Der Rohe was “German, not American” and the question about
    “Womans great leap forward” contribute to the discussion? It seems to me that these comments only indicate the narrow minded focus of those readers.


  • Reply posted by Robert Cowger (January 22, 2011, 2:49 pm):

    The comments are very interesting. “God is in the details”, why not? Could not have God designed the human brain so that it slowly developed along some lines. I will bet that if you gave an IQ test to these illiterate, unthinking (in some peoples opinion)sapiens sapiens they would have the same result as giving an IQ test today to people from say, Brooklyn. I have always thought people of long ago were exactly the same as people of today.
    Now as to projectile points. I am an native american indian. Here is how I look at arrowheads, etc. There are a whole bunch of types of stone tools that can be made by hand by an artist in stone chipping. Given the right kind of flint, beautiful articles can be produced. Given the right kind of chert good arrowheads and other projectile points can be made.
    Some indians made excellent high quality points which could be said to be “perfect”. Some were in a hurry and made sloppy but adequate arrowheads. I have tried to make arrowheads, projectile points, and ornaments and found that I do not have the talent. I ended up with bloody fingers. Flint chips hurt, Mommy.
    All depended upon the artistic talent of the maker and the ultimate use of the point.


  • Reply posted by Tom Potts (January 28, 2011, 4:17 am):

    I work in IT and am constantly amused by the incredibly primitive uses of the technology mostly enforced by the current culture. I feel that there never was the great leap forward – just a gradual acquisition and loss of culture , with occasional catastrophes that allowed ‘disruptive’ technologies to come to the fore and/or eradicating other possibly more advanced ones. Until 10 thousand years ago or so 99% humans probably lived in coastal regions and lived a very relaxed life. There was little need to innovate, or even farm. Climate change at the end of the last ice age is probably responsible for the greatest cultural and technological changes as sea level rise wiped out culturally chosen food sources and also the evidence of the technology and the people that used it.
    As an archer myself I can say a simple bow with a wound grass string and a fire hardened point on a flightless arrow can easily kill small prey – birds in trees and rabbits within a few 10s of meters. What I find more interesting is that people actually worked out that it was worth the effort of knapping and adding an arrowhead to an arrow. That indicates a huge amount of leisure time to get it right and a lot more for it to become accepted practice. If this is proof of arrowheads 64000 years ago you can bet archery goes back a long long way.


  • Reply posted by Driver Disk (February 14, 2011, 6:05 am):


    Well Given the ability of even modern day religions to determine rigid patterns of what, where, and when concerning adherents’ behaviors associated with eating certain foods, drinking certain brews, wearing certain clothes, performing certain tasks, and in such cases as the Amish refusing even to incorporate such innoccuous things as buttons or zippers– how much more strongly could inherited cultural forms have been enforced through taboo and rigid group authority?

    Look at Egypt and the way the dif religions interated there taboos and even the times that everythign stopped even fopr prayer affected everythign.. the same can be reflected in this subject


  • Reply posted by Gavin Lyall (March 16, 2011, 6:46 am):

    The Truth, if not God, is in the details–and even a “Homo Sapiens Sapiens” brain can hold only a finite number of details. So we simplify them with theories like the “Great Leap Forward”, and forget them when new details seem to contradict our oversimplifications. SOMETHING happened at the dawn of the Upper Paleolithic to turn us from ultra-conservative tool-users into brilliant artists and mass-extinction vectors, and few older shell-beads and pressure-flaked points should not keep us from looking for it.


  • Reply posted by lonecowpoke (April 10, 2011, 12:08 pm):

    wood rots, every thing rots that is organic the type of animal
    they were hunting deturmens the type of point


  • Reply posted by Pete (April 27, 2011, 6:42 pm):

    I have been retired for several years and now have ample time to explore the thoughts of where and how man came to be what he is today. Interesting to hear from well educated & learned people. Let me throw this thought your way. Having lived past 65 yrs old I think the equation must include length of life to the learning curve. This “great leap” so talked about may have included the length people lived to pass on the information to improve skills of tool making, language, cognitive thought,Music skill or what ever you include in the advanced skills of homo sapiens, what makes us human, different than other species.As man began to improve his life he probably extended it as well giving rise to being able to pass on to other generations to maybe a third one, past learned observations. Therefore periods of bad times due to climate, disasters as we encounter even today, with masses being killed,would have determined the length of survival. Adapting to climate, & environment change has significantly impacted our cultures and movements exploring & settling our world today. So how long does it take to pass on Ideas of improving our very existence to live a longer life. Isn’t that what it’s all about??


  • Reply posted by Amy (May 14, 2012, 11:26 am):

    Its fascinating to see new finds that cause the reworking of current theories. God is in the detail. The details are what change our idea of early man.


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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