Clues to the earliest known bow-and-arrow hunting outside Africa have been found

People hunted with bows and arrows in a rainforest on a
South Asian island starting around 48,000 years ago, a new study suggests.

Small bone artifacts with sharpened tips unearthed in a Sri
Lankan cave represent the earliest
evidence of bow-and-arrow use outside Africa
, says a team led by
archaeologist Michelle Langley of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.

Microscopic analyses of 130 of those bone points revealed surface
cracks and other damage caused by high-speed impacts, likely because these
artifacts were used as arrowheads, Langley and her colleagues conclude June 12
in Science Advances. Notches and wear
at the bottom of the bone points indicate that they were attached to thin
shafts. But the finds, from sediment in Fa-Hien Lena cave dating to between
48,000 and 34,000 years ago, are too short and heavy to have served as tips of
blowgun darts, the investigators contend. Bow-and-arrow hunting at the Sri
Lankan site likely focused on monkeys and smaller animals, such as squirrels,
Langley says. Remains of these creatures were found in the same sediment as the
bone points.

Evidence increasingly points to hunting with bows and arrows
in Africa more than 60,000 years ago, says Marlize Lombard, an archaeologist at
the University of Johannesburg who wasn’t involved in the study. “I would not
be surprised to see [bow-and-arrow] hunting associated with any Homo sapiens group after about 65,000
years ago, regardless of location,” Lombard says.

Microscopic analyses of this bone point (shown from two sides) excavated on Sri Lanka indicate it probably served as the business end of an arrow as early as around 48,000 years ago.M.C. Langley
bone point from Sri Lanka
Microscopic analyses of this bone point (shown from two sides) excavated on Sri Lanka indicate it probably served as the business end of an arrow as early as around 48,000 years ago.M.C. Langley

Lombard, however, reserves judgment on the Sri Lankan bone
points until high-resolution CT scans are used to probe for damage from
high-speed impacts inside the artifacts. That technique helped to determine
that a more than 60,000-year-old bone point previously unearthed in South
Africa was probably
an arrowhead
, a team including Lombard reported in the May 15 Quaternary Science Reviews.

Archaeologist Ryan Rabett of Queen’s University Belfast in
Northern Ireland calls the new study of Sri Lankan bone points “suggestive but
not definitive” evidence of bow-and-arrow hunting. It’s possible, he says, that
bone points were attached to multi-pronged spears that were thrown or thrust at
fish. Remains of fish were also found in ancient Fa-Hien Lena sediment.

Losing arrows while hunting in dense Sri Lankan forests
would have presented a major challenge to ancient people, Rabett adds.

Other finds in Fa-Hien Lena cave, including bone implements
possibly used to make clothes and nets as well as shell beads, indicate that a
distinctive set of complex behaviors emerged deep in the Stone Age as people
reached densely forested parts of South Asia, Langley and her colleagues say. A
couple of pointed bones display no signs of having been attached to a shaft and
possibly held bait while fishing or functioned as barbs in netted animal traps,
Langley says. Another 29 bone artifacts appear to have been used to make
clothes or nets out of animal skins or plant fibers.

Evidence of symbolic behavior at the site comes from three
beads made from seashells and another three beads fashioned out of pieces of a
red pigment called ochre. Single-holed ochre pieces might have been strung
together as way to store them for future use rather than as ornaments, Langley
says. Excavated chunks of red, yellow and silver pigment were likely used to
decorate bodies or objects, she adds.

The artifacts support the idea, based mainly on
archaeological finds in Africa, that complex behavior equivalent to that of
people today emerged early in Homo
evolution, 100,000 years ago or more, and involved finding ways to
thrive in novel environments, Langley argues. What human evolution researchers
often refer to as “modern” behavior “is all about flexibility and adaptability
to a wide range of situations,” she says.

Until hominid fossils are found at Fa-Hien Lena, it’s hard to say who occupied the site, says New York University archaeologist Justin Pargeter. H. sapiens, Neandertals and Denisovans (SN: 12/16/19) inhabited parts of Asia and some Pacific islands, and periodically interbred, when bone points were being made at Fa-Hien Lena. “It may be too soon to conclude that this story is all about ‘modern’ humans,” Pargeter says.

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