Homo Heidelbergensis as Skilled Hunter

Archaeologists at the University of Tübingen suggest that eight extremely well-preserved wooden throwing spears found more than a decade ago in Germany may have been created and used by Homo heidelbergensis.

A stone knife found in a coal mine in Schöningen, left, and a reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis (Christa S. Fuchs / The Lower Saxony Heritage Preservation Authority / José Antonio Peñas)

Between 1994 and 1998, Dr Hartmut Thieme of the Lower Saxony State Service for Cultural Heritage found the spears and other artifacts dating back 400,000 years in a open-cast lignite mine in Schöningen, Germany. The finds were described in the journal Nature.

One of the eight perfectly-preserved spears found in a coal mine in Schöningen (Nicholas J. Conard / University of Tübingen)

Now, the team led by Prof Nicholas Conard and Dr Jordi Serangeli, both from the University of Tübingen’s Institute of Prehistory, continues the excavations at the site.

The archaeologists suggest that users of these artifacts were highly skilled craftsmen and hunters, well adapted to their environment – with a capacity for abstract thought and complex planning comparable to our own, and speculate that the most likely species was Homo heidelbergensis.

The bones of large mammals – elephants, rhinoceroses, horses and lions – as well as the remains of amphibians, reptiles, shells and even beetles have been preserved in the brown coal. Pines, firs, and black alder trees are preserved complete with pine cones, as have the leaves, pollen and seeds of surrounding flora.

Until the mining started at the site 30 years ago, these finds were below the water table. The archaeologists say they are now carrying out “underwater archaeology without the water.” Work continues almost all year round, and every day there is something new to document and recover.

Some of the most important finds from the site have been remains of a water buffalo, an almost completely preserved aurochs – one of the oldest in central Europe – and several concentrations of stone artifacts, bones and wood.

The scientists say Schöningen is an exciting location and global reference point not just for archaeology, but also for quaternary ecology and climate research.

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Bibliographic information: Hartmut Thieme. 1997. Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 385, 807 – 810, 27 February 1997; doi: 10.1038/385807a0