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Ancient weapons discovered show early humans' smarts

Ancient weapons discovered show early humans' smarts

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SALT LAKE CITY — A recent discovery shows humans developed advanced weaponry earlier than was originally thought.

Rocks carved into arrowheads and tools used for hurling spears were among the weaponry partially exposed by a South African coastal storm, and scientists say the discovery points to ancient peoples capable of complex forms of thinking.

"Every time we excavate a new site in coastal South Africa with advanced field techniques, we discover new and surprising results that push back in time the evidence for uniquely human behaviors," Curtis Marean, project director and Arizona State University professor in the Institute of Human Origins, said in a statement.

The discoveries date back 71,000 years and one type of artifact, called an atlatl, would have allowed Stone Age peoples to throw at a greater distance and with greater killing power. Long, thin blades of stone were blunted on one edge and set in wood or bone, which prepared the way for bow-and-arrow technology.

The stone used to create the weaponry was transformed by "heat treatment" for easier flaking.

Earlier research showed the existence of the atlatis between 60,000 and 65,000 years ago, at which point it was thought to vanish. The vanishing point was thought to be one in a series of many over the course of history, caused by small populations struggling to survive harsh climate phases.

Who were the Neanderthals?
The Neanderthals are a now-extinct species closely related to modern humans. The term "Neanderthal" derives from the Neander Valley in Germany, where the species was first discovered.

They lived between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago and contributed DNA to modern humans between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago via breeding with early humans that dispersed out of Africa.

Neanderthals were much stronger than modern humans and had a bigger brain size. They disappeared from the fossil record about 25,000 years ago, likely for one of two reasons:

  • Neanderthals were replaced by modern humans moving into their habitat beginning around 80,000 years ago.
  • Neanderthals bred with early humans to the point that the species was absorbed.
A third theory posits that a volcanic super-eruption around 40,000 years ago contributed to the species' demise.

The new discoveries lend credence to a different theory, though: technologies persisted over vast spans of time throughout human history, instead of ebbing and flowing with time.

"Eleven-thousand years of continuity is, in reality, an almost unimaginable time span for people to consistently make tools the same way," Marean said. "This is certainly not a flickering pattern."

The artifacts were discovered over the course of nine years at Pinnacle Point, an area prone to storms. Marean said one day a storm exposed materials in a cave higher up than the beach, which is where artifacts are usually found. Artifacts from the cave have been dated to anywhere between 50,000 and 90,000 years ago.

The researchers believe the weapons were imperative to the success of modern humans as they came into contact with the Neanderthals after leaving Africa. The Neanderthals are thought to have lacked projectile weapons. Early modern humans were thought to have had an advantage in pro-social behavior, as well.

"These two traits were a knockout punch. Combine them, as modern humans did and still do, and no prey or competitor is safe," Marean said in a statement. "This probably laid the foundation for the expansion out of Africa of modern humans and the extinction of many prey as well as our sister species such as Neanderthals."

The researchers' findings appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of "Nature."

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Stephanie Grimes


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