The search for the perfect hunting tool began very early in human evolution. While humans are not the only mammals to use tools to get to their food, they are unique in the way they improve on what nature provides. Once they realised how lethal a pointed object could be, they started to polish and chip pieces of stone and fashion them into spearheads.
Fossil records show that our ancestors’ brain size increased dramatically about 500,000 years ago, and continued to grow, as they learned to look at rocks, stones, antlers, horns and bones and imagine how they could transform them for different purposes. More than that, it appears that they had an eye for beauty and a pride in craftsmanship; many of their stone tools are exquisite. Their problem-solving ability led to great technological breakthroughs such as learning how to make glue and use heat to fasten their spearheads to wooden shafts.
Applying their ingenuity to increasing the range of their weapons led early hunters to develop different kinds of spear throwers, sometimes called atlatls. Recent discoveries in Pinnacle Cave, South Africa, revealed that as early as 70,000 years ago they were hafting sharp stone tips, about 2 inches / 5 cms long, to be propelled from their atlatls to lethal effect. Darts from an atlatl can fell prey at 40 metres /45 yards, earning it the nickname ‘Stone Age Kalashnikov’. Versions can be found throughout the world including Australia where it’s known as the woomera or miru.
The spear was not the only popular projectile. Contrary to popular belief, boomerangs were not exclusive to Australia. The earliest yet, made from a mammoth tusk, was found in a cave in Poland and dated to 23,000 BCE. This takes us into the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, when bows and arrows, being lighter and more portable, gradually replaced the atlatl in most parts of the world. Today, however, the atlatl is enjoying a revival in sport.
As the glaciers from the last Ice Age retreated, hunters followed herds across land bridges between continents. Their technology had grown more varied and sophisticated to include fine arrowheads, harpoons and tools using tiny blades to work skins into clothing, tents and other objects. Fish bones and piles of empty shells show that diets and hunting methods had become more varied. Gradually humans began to settle down and start farming and herding as the New Stone Age or Neolithic began. But hunting remained popular both to supplement their diet, particularly in the winter, and as a sport.
The wonderful hunting scenes painted on rock faces from around 40,000 years ago attest that hunting was not just a way of obtaining food, but was also deeply ingrained in culture. The most ancient examples include those from caves in the Dordogne in France, and Eastern Spain, which were decorated over hundreds of years. A magnificent scene from the Cova dels Cavalls, Spain, shows a group of archers chasing a herd of nine deer; a painting from another cave depicts six hunters chasing and hitting boars with arrows. Did these commemorate hunting success, or were they created as ritual hunting magic to ensure a good result, or were they painted for other reasons? The jury is still out.
By Celine Castelino - Archeologist