An Experimental Investigation of Asymmetrical Paleolithic Wooden Spears

Rebecca Biermann Gürbüz

A still-shot from an instructional video in which Rebecca Biermann Gürbüz demonstrates how to make a wooden spear to participants.

A still-shot from an instructional video in which Rebecca Biermann Gürbüz demonstrates how to make a wooden spear to participants.

Graduate Student Project

Introduction

The oldest wooden spears are almost 500,000 years old—predating our own species. Since wood decomposes quickly, very few spears have been found dating to between 100 and 400,000 years ago. The site with the most spears-Schöningen, Germany-bore spears with asymmetrical tips. Why would pre-Homo sapiens human ancestors make spears with asymmetrical tips?

I'm Rebecca Biermann Gürbüz, a fifth-year PhD candidate in Anthropology working with Dr. Stephen Lycett. This experiment was part of my dissertation research, which I conceived of and conducted with the guidance of Dr. Lycett.

Some scholars have argued the asymmetry of the Schöningen spears is due to their manufacturers choosing the hardest part of the wood (adjacent to the center) for the tip thus making it asymmetrical, which they take to indicate strategic planning on the part of hominins. However, a more parsimonious explanation is that they were more efficient (i.e., quicker) to make this way. This is the primary question we tested. We used two groups of participants to make asymmetrical and symmetrical spears. We also tested whether stronger participants were able to produce spears more quickly, controlling for this variable. Results suggest hominins strategically planned their spear designs.

Abstract

Paleolithic wooden spears provide rare but unique insights into early hunting technology. Examples from Schöningen (Germany) indicate that spear tips were sometimes asymmetrical. One proposed reason for this is that they were created from the hardest portion of the wood, away from the center, while a more parsimonious explanation is the maximizing of efficiency (i.e., minimizing manufacturing time). Here, two different spear tip manufacturing processes (asymmetrical and symmetrical tips) were experimentally tested with two groups of participants, while also examining the influence of biometric factors on spear-tip manufacturing efficiency (measured by time). Results demonstrated no significant difference in efficiency. Conversely, biometric characteristics present a more dominant influence in explaining time variation. These results also indicate that the asymmetrical tips of spears at Schöningen were not simply the incidental by-product of a more efficient manufacturing process, but rather are evidence for planning depth and the associated cognitive capacities.

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