It hangs in a glass display case at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Hewn from a single piece of wood, it is a formidable-looking weapon: more than six feet long, as big at its widest circumference as a child’s baseball bat, tapered to a sharp point. This artifact is a replica of one of the eight Schöningen spears, relics of fantastic antiquity, dating from some three hundred thousand years ago – more than the entire span of our existence as Homo sapiens sapiens (modern humans).
The Schöningen spears were recovered from an open-pit coal mine in Lower Saxony, Germany, in 1995. These spears mark a turning point in human evolution, and their discovery marks a turning point as well. Probably no single archaeological site has done more to change our view of the past than Schöningen.
Three hundred thousand years ago, this area was a marshy, swampy environment located at the edge of a lake. A thick layer of anoxic black mud covered the site, preserving everything in excellent condition, until mining operations lowered the water table and left the site exposed to the elements.
Excavations began in 1982 under the direction of Hartmut Thieme of the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage, whose original mission was to extract as much from the site as possible before mining operations destroyed it. Dr. Thieme stepped down in 2008, after a quarter century of patient labor, but work on the site continues to this day and is expected to last for decades to come.
The excavation site at Schöningen. Tangelnfoto, Wikimedia Commons
Examining the Evidence
The entire December 2015 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution was devoted to Schöningen, with no fewer than 20 papers providing reliable and up-to-date information on the site, much of it available in English for the first time. Over 75 experts from a broad range of scientific disciplines have contributed their knowledge to this enterprise, including Nicholas Conard, Mareike Stahlschmidt, and Thomas Terberger, all of whom kindly agreed to be interviewed for Popular Archaeology.
“Schöningen is fabulous,” says Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen. “It’s completely unique and brilliant. It’s the only place in the world where we have preservation of this kind.”
No hominin, or archaic human, remains have been found at the site. The Schöningen spears are thought by many scholars to have been made by an extinct human species known as Homo heidelbergensis (H. Heidelbergensis), believed to be the common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans, and whose cranial capacity was just a bit less than that of modern humans. The spears were made during an interglacial period – the climate in this part of the world was about the same as it is now, perhaps a bit cooler.
Thousands of animal bones have been uncovered at Schöningen, including the remains of dozens of horses, mostly prime-age adults, along with some juveniles. Among the remains were intact horse skulls. Analysis of tooth microwear patterns and isotopic ratios indicate that these horses died at different times of the year, as opposed to a single killing event. These bones may have accumulated over the course of years, decades, or even centuries (although probably not millennia). Also present are the remains of red deer, bison, mammoths, and at least two saber-toothed cats. Many of these bones bear obvious signs of being butchered by humans, and some of them bear tooth marks from large carnivores as well. In those cases, the tooth marks are superimposed upon the cut marks, indicating that the carnivores were scavenging the remains of kills after humans had eaten their fill, rather than the other way around.
Dr. Thieme initially reported the discovery of four hearths where the Schöningen hominins had supposedly built fires, but later investigators have concluded these “hearths” were formed by natural processes. That doesn’t mean the Schöningen hominins weren’t smart enough to understand the use of fire – we just don’t know for sure. The Schöningen hominins killed and butchered their game here, but they made their homes somewhere else – where, we still don’t know.
Mareike Stahlschmidt is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the School of Archaeology at University College Dublin. During an interview about the site, she stated that the earliest convincing evidence for the controlled use of fire, from Qesem Cave in Israel, goes back 400,000 years. That’s even older than Schöningen, but there is no direct evidence for the controlled use of fire in northern latitudes anywhere in the Lower Paleolithic yet, either at Schöningen or elsewhere.
Dr. Stahlschmidt also noted that scientists generally agree it is impossible for humans to survive temperatures below minus five degrees Celsius without some sort of protection in the form of fire, clothing, or shelter. “We don’t know enough about what these people actually were like in the past, what they could do or couldn’t do. What other ways did they have to fight the cold in these past times? Did they have shelters? Did they use clothes? Hunting technology was highly sophisticated as the wooden spears at Schöningen show. We need to study in more detail what was going on at this time, and then we can make more clear assumptions about what happened, and how likely it was that people could live without fire.”
In addition to the spears, investigators have also uncovered stone and bone tools and a pointed throwing stick. But it is the spears that capture our imagination. These are the oldest completely preserved hunting weapons found anywhere in the world, and close examination reveals the care and expertise that went into their making. The spears were fashioned from spruce, a tree whose slow rate of growth makes for hard wood. Palynological analysis shows that spruce trees were scarce at Schöningen, suggesting that the raw material for their manufacture was procured from somewhere else. The spears were weighted towards the front end, just like modern tournament javelins. The sharp point at the tip had been deliberately placed a bit off center, in order to avoid the central pith – the weakest part of the wood. Tests with replicas showed they could be thrown accurately, with good penetrative power, for distances up to 60 meters.
Animal bones excavated and in situ at the Schöningen site. NLD + K. Cornelius, Wikimedia Commons
Dr. H. Thieme shows and explains Spear VI in situ at the Schöningen archaeological site. P. Pfarr NLD, Wikimedia Commons
Spear VII in situ at the Schöningen archaeological site. P. Pfarr NLD, Wikimedia Commons
Wooden artifacts at Schöningen were remarkably well preserved. C.S. Fuchs NLD
These spears have forced us to re-examine preconceived ideas about the capabilities of our Lower Paleolithic ancestors. Prior to Schöningen, scientists believed that only modern humans were capable of taking down big game, and that archaic humans such as H. heidelbergensis were, at best, scavengers of kills made by large carnivores. The findings at Schöningen turn this doctrine on its head.
The Schöningen hominins were clearly able to anticipate the behavior of their prey, understanding that they would be drawn to this spot for its reliable supply of fresh water. The spears had to have been made well in advance, by skilled artisans, from raw materials procured from some distance away, before being transported to the kill site. The hunters were tackling highly mobile prey that could be dangerous when attacked, suggesting the need for coordinated groups with a high degree of cooperation. The carcasses were butchered in a predictable, systematic manner, indicating both an intimate knowledge of prey anatomy and some way of conveying that knowledge across generations. All these features indicate an ability to communicate about contexts beyond the here and now, an understanding of the concepts of here and there, present and future. This suggests the existence of a spoken language containing nouns, verbs, prepositions, and descriptive terms.
Moreover, one adult horse would have weighed a thousand pounds or more, providing far more meat than any one individual could have used, implying the existence of food sharing. It also suggests that it was unlikely that small children, the elderly, or pregnant and nursing women would have participated in the hunt for dangerous big game, which implies division of labor.
In summary, the Schöningen hominins were highly effective big game hunters, at the top of the food chain. With a command of linguistic skills including concepts of spatial and temporal relationships, they were able to repeatedly plan and execute well-coordinated and successful group activities that culminated in food sharing and division of labor, in a way radically different from all other primates and similar to the behavior patterns of modern humans.
Questions remain: Why were the spears abandoned here, after all the hard work and care that went into their making? Were they deliberately buried, as part of some ancient post-hunting ritual? And what about the horse skulls, which were not smashed open or used in any way? Did the hunters preserve them intact, as an act of veneration, or to ask them forgiveness for their act of violence?
“We can only guess that the horse skulls were not damaged and broken because there was quite a lot of meat available, and this was the meat of second choice,” said Thomas Terberger at the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage. “But certainly we cannot completely rule out that the horse skulls were left intact because of sacred reasons…offering them to the gods, offering them back to eternity or something like that. We cannot directly observe this, but it is possible that there was a specific reason not to damage the skulls.”
“What is interesting is up until now we always assumed these wooden weapons were used as hunting weapons. Considering the fact that we are also dealing with highly dangerous animals such as saber-toothed cats at the same site, we can well imagine that these weapons were also extremely important [so] that these people could defend themselves. Altogether these wooden weapons are marker stones of humankind.”
The Homotherium crenatidens Fabrini (Saber toothed cat). Skull. Villafranchien. Perrier (Puy-de-Dôme). National Museum of Natural History, Paris. Jebulon, Wikimedia Commons
Artist’s depiction of H. heidelbergensis, the extinct human species suggested by at least some scholars to have crafted the implements found at the Schöningen archaeological site. Nachosan, Wikimedia Commons
The museum where Schöningen site artifacts are currently displayed. Michel Schauch, Wikimedia Commons
List of Sources
1. Thomas Terberger, telephone interview 16 November 2015.
2. Nicholas Conard, telephone interview 21 December 2015.
3. Marieke Stahlschmidt, telephone interview 7 January 2016.
4. Thieme, H. 1997. Lower Paleolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 385:807-810.
5. Thieme, H. 2005. The lower Paleolithic art of hunting. pp. 115-132 in The Hominid Individual in Context: Archaeological Investigations of Lower and Middle Paleolithic Landscapes Locales, and Artifacts. Routledge, London and New York.
6. Conard, N.J. et al. 2015. Excavations at Schöningen and paradigm shifts in human evolution. Journal of Human Evolution 89:1-17.
7. Lang, J. et al. 2015. The Middle Pleistocene tunnel valley at Schöningen as a Paleolithic archive. Journal of Human Evolution 89:18-26.
8. Serangeli, J. et al. 2015. Overview and new results from large-scale excavations in Schöningen. Journal of Human Evolution 89:27-45.
9. Richter, D. and M. Krbetschek 2015. The age of the Lower Paleolithic occupation at Schöningen. Journal of Human Evolution 89:46-56.
10. Urban, B. and G. Bigga 2015. Environmental reconstruction and biostratigraphy of late Middle Pleistocene lakeshore deposits at Schöningen. Journal of Human Evolution 89:57-70.
11. Stahlschmidt, M. et al. 2015. The depositional environments of Schöningen 13 II-4 and their archaeological implications. Journal of Human Evolution 89:71-91.
12. Bigga, G. et al. 2015. Paleoenvironment and possibilities of plant exploitation in the Middle Pleistocene of Schöningen (Germany). Insights from botanical macro-remains and pollen. Journal of Human Evolution 89:92-104.
13. Kuitems, M. et al. 2015. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes of well-preserved Middle Pleistocene bone collagen from Schöningen (Germany) and their paleoecological implications. Journal of Human Evolution 89:105-113.
14. Julien, M.-A. et al. 2015. A new approach for deciphering between single and multiple accumulation events using intra-tooth variations: Application to Middle Pleistocene bone bed. Journal of Human Evolution 89:114-128.
15. Rivals, F. et al. 2015. Investigation of equid paleodiet from Schöningen 13 II-4 through dental wear and isotopic analyses: Archaeological implications. Journal of Human Evolution 89:129-137.
16. Van Kolfschoften, T. et al 2015. The larger mammal fauna from the Lower Paleolithic Schöningen Spear site and its contribution to hominin subsistence. Journal of Human Evolution 89:138-153.
17. Starkovich, B. and N.J. Conard 2015. Bone taphonomy of the Schöningen “Spear Horizon South” and its implications for site formation and and hominin meat provisioning. Journal of Human Evolution 89:154-171.
18. Serangeli, J. et al. 2015. The European saber-toothed cat (Homotherium latidens) found in the “Spear Horizon” at Schöningen (Germany). Journal of Human Evolution 89:172-180.
19. Stahlschmidt, M. et al.2015. On the evidence for human use and control of fire at Schöningen, Journal of Human Evolution 89:181-201.
20. Bohner, U. et al. 2015. The Spear Horizon: First spatial analysis of the Schöningen site 13 II 4. Journal of Human Evolution 89:202-213.
21. Schoch, W.H. et al. 2015. New insights on the wooden weapons from the Paleolithic site of Schöningen. Journal of Human Evolution 89:214-225.
22. Van Kolfschoten, T. et al. 2015. Lower Paleolithic bone tools from the “Spear Horizon” at Schöningen (Germany). Journal of Human Evolution 89:226-263.
23. Julien, M.-A. et al. 2015. Characterizing the Lower Paleolithic bone industry from Schöningen 12 II: A multi-proxy study. Journal of Human Evolution 89:264-286.
24. Serangeli, J. and N.J. Conard 2015. The behavioral and stratigraphic contexts of the lithic assemblages from Schöningen. Journal of Human Evolution 89:287-297.
25. Rots, V. et al. 2015. Residue and microwear analysis of the stone artifacts from Schöningen. Journal of Human Evolution 89:298-308.