Earliest bows and arrows outside Africa found in Sri Lankan rainforest

Fa-Hien Lena in the Sri Lankan rainforest yielded a range of the artefacts recovered from its 48,000-year-old archaeological deposit. (Credits: M. C. Langley / SWNS)

The oldest use of bows and arrows by prehistoric humans outside of Africa has been discovered in Asia along with the world’s oldest beads.

In the 48,000-year-old cache of bone tools excavated from a Sri Lankan cave, researchers found the earliest known bow-and-arrow technology in Europe or Asia.

This new archaeological research also unearthed implements that may have been used to make clothing – a development traditionally believed to have been used as protection against the cold.

Other artefacts found at the site include decorative beads made from the pointed tips of marine snail shells, which likely came from the coast through trade, and the world’s oldest beads made entirely of red ochre.

This evidence of ‘projectile technology’, personal ornamentation and long-distance social networks in a tropical rainforest, offer new insight into how early Homo sapiens adapted to diverse, extreme environments as they spread across the globe.

Some of the main finds from the site include remarkable single and doubled pointed bone tools that scientists suspect were used to harvest tropical resources.

Tools made on bone and teeth were used to hunt small monkeys and squirrels, work skins or plants, and perhaps create nets at Fa-Hien Lena, Sri Lanka 48,000-years-ago. (Credits: M. C. Langley / SWNS)

These tools found in the Fa-Hien Lena cave deep in the heart of Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone forests, are earlier than the first similar technology found in Europe.

Tools and artefacts from between 48,000 and 4,000 years ago were unearthed at Fa-Hien Lena – the site of the earliest human fossils in South Asia.

The researchers analysed 130 arrow points made from animal bone that showed impact fractures consistent with hunting damage.

Originally used to target adult monkeys, the tools increased in length over time for the purpose of hunting larger mammals, such as pigs and deer.

Notches and wear patterns showed that the points were attached to thin shafts, but they are too short and heavy to have been the tips of blowgun darts..

This technology included small bone arrow points, and skin or plant-working tools. (Credits: M. C. Langley / SWNS)

Therefore, the researchers concluded the tools represent the remnants of bow-and-arrow toolkits – the earliest definitive evidence for high-powered projectile hunting in a tropical rainforest environment.

As well arrow tips, the researchers discovered 29 bone tools that were used to work animal skins, plant fibres, or both.

The authors believe that clothing made with these tools may have served as protection from insect-borne diseases.

Scientists also showed that other bone tools may have been used for making nets or clothing, dramatically altering traditional assumptions about how certain human innovations were linked with specific environments.

Using microscopic analysis on other bone tools, the team found implements which seemed to have been used for freshwater fishing in nearby tropical streams, as well as the working of fibre to make nets or clothing.

Discoveries of older bow-and-arrow technology and artistic or symbolic behaviours in open grassland or coastal settings in Africa have framed ‘savannah’ and marine environments, as key drivers behind early hunting and cultural experiments by Ice Age humans.

But co-author of the new study, Patrick Roberts of the MPI-SHH, argued that ‘this traditional focus has meant that other parts of Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the Americas have often been side-lined in discussions of the origins of material culture, such as novel projectile hunting methods or cultural innovations associated with our species’.

However, the last 20 years have highlighted how Ice Age humans occupied and adapted to a variety of extreme environments as they migrated beyond Africa, including deserts, high-altitude areas and tropical rainforests such as those of Sri Lanka.

The question as to exactly how early humans utilised the resources of the rainforest – including fast-moving animals such as monkeys and squirrels – remains unresolved.

Michelle Langley of Griffith University in Australia, the lead author of the new study, said: ‘The fractures on the points [of the cutting tools found] indicate damage through high-powered impact – something usually seen in the use of bow-and-arrow hunting of animals.

‘This evidence is earlier than similar findings in Southeast Asia 32,000 years ago and is currently the earliest clear evidence for bow-and-arrow use beyond the African continent.

‘We also found clear evidence for the production of coloured beads from mineral ochre and the refined making of shell beads traded from the coast, at a similar age to other ‘social signalling’ materials found in Eurasia and Southeast Asia, roughly 45,000 years ago.’

Some of the symbolic artefacts recovered from Fa-Hien Lena, Sri Lanka. Here you can see shell beads and different pigments in bright red, yellow, and silver which were used to decorate bodies or items. (Credits: M. C. Langley / SWNS)

Co-author Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH) in Germany, said archaeologists can no longer link specific technological, symbolic, or cultural developments in Ice Age humans to a single region or environment.

He added: ‘The Sri Lankan evidence shows that the invention of bows-and-arrows, clothing, and symbolic signalling occurred multiple times and in multiple different places, including within the tropical rainforests of Asia.

‘In addition to insulation in cold environments, clothes may have also helped against tropical mosquitoes.’

The new study is part of a growing awareness that many regions of the world saw extraordinary and complex new technologies emerge at the end of the early Stone Age, or Palaeolithic period.

Nicole Boivin, director at the MPI-SHH and study co-author, said: ‘Humans at this time show extraordinary resourcefulness and the ability to exploit a range of new environments.

‘These skills enabled them to colonise nearly all of the planet’s continents by about 10,000 years ago, setting us clearly on the path to being the global species we are today.’

Though researchers have acknowledged for decades that South Asia is crucial to understanding how humans expanded across the world’s continents during the Late Ice Age period – between 129,000 and 11,700 years ago – there remains a lack of detailed studies on the region’s most ancient sites.

Ochre in bright red, yellow, and silver along with shell beads were discovered in the 48,000-year-old site of Fa-Hien Lena located in the rainforests of Sri Lanka. (Credits: M. C. Langley / SWNS)

The origins of human innovation have traditionally been sought in the grasslands and coasts of Africa or the temperate environments of Europe.

More extreme environments, such as the tropical rainforests of Asia, have been largely overlooked, despite their deep history of human occupation.

But now this new study gives the earliest evidence for bow-and-arrow use, and perhaps the making of clothes, outside of Africa around 48,000 to 45,000 years ago – in the tropics of Sri Lanka.

The study was published in Science Advances.

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