Little arrow that rewrites history books

By Time of article published Jun 5, 2008

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By Shaun Smillie

It might have been used to bring down a small blue duiker or perhaps pick off a bird high in the forest canopy. Its exact target will never be known, but scientists now know what this ordinary-looking piece of bone was used for.

Two researchers from Wits University believe that what they have discovered is a 60 000-year-old arrow that was fired from the earliest known bow. Their discovery has pushed back the origins of bow-and-arrow technology by 20 000 years.

The bow, probably made of wood and long since decayed, was used at a time when Neanderthals in Europe were using large spears in duels with woolly mammoths and other large prehistoric game.

Dr Lucinda Backwell of the Bernard Price Institute for Palae-ontological Research and Professor Lyn Wadley of Wits University's department of archaeology and Institute for Human Evolution released their findings in an article that appeared in the Journal of Archaeological Science co-authored by Francesco d'Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France.

The bone arrow, just 5cm long, was excavated by Wadley at the Sibudu cave, near the coastal town of Ballito in KwaZulu Natal, two years ago.

Wadley handed the specimens, which included two other pieces of bone, to Backwell. It was after much research and visits to Museum Africa in Newtown, Joburg, that Backwell realised what she was looking at.

"The museum has a large collection of Bushman arrow points. It appeared to be identical to arrows that the Bushman used to kill birds and small mammals," Backwell said.

"We think that the bone point marks a shift from hand-delivered spears to the use of projectile technology."

It also provides a glimpse of how humans were living in this corner of what is now KwaZulu Natal.

"They would have adapted to living in the forest, where they would have been hunting little animals," she said.

"Nets and traps were also probably used for hunting and fishing."

The other two bone specimens discovered at the cave also give clues to life 60 000 years ago. Backwell explained: "One of the bones appeared to have been used as a needle, which suggests leather-work. The other bone was highly polished, also suggesting it was used to work leather."

It's mystery who the people were who fashioned the arrow.

It is not known if these were a new group of people who moved into the area, or if it was technological innovation brought on by environmental changes.

Also at this time, humankind was leaving an ever-increasing archaeological record of the first inklings of modern human behaviour. They were burying the dead, using coloured pigments and wearing jewellery.

"This at a time a few thousand years before they walked out of Africa, to become the ancestors of all humans," said Backwell.

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