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Stone tool documents Neanderthal hunting practices

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Hohle Fels Leaf point ©University of Tübingen

The analysis of a leaf point recently discovered at the classified site of Hohle Fels in Germany has revealed more about the practice of hunting and the manufacture and use of this type of tool by Neanderthals over 65,000 years ago. The discovery has just been presented as "Find of the Year" for the Hohle Fels site. The results of the excavation - carried out by the University of Tübingen - and the analysis of the leaf point - carried out by the University of Liège - are the subject of two articles in this week's publication of Archäologische Ausgrabungen in Baden-Württemberg and Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte.

65,000 years ago, the Neanderthals of the Swabian Alb hunted horses and reindeer, amongst other with the aid of stone points. One of these points, recently discovered in the Hohle Fels cave in south-west Germany (a UNESCO World Heritage site), bears witness to the hunting practices of the time. A team of researchers led by Professor Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment in southern Germany discovered the artefact under a 65,000-year-old layer, which makes it possible to date the point to at least this period. Microscopic studies at the TraceoLab (Art, Archaeology and Heritage (AAP) Research Unit) of the University of Liege show that this carefully crafted leaf point was used as a projectile and was mounted on a wooden spear to kill large game at close range, probably through use as a thrusting weapon.

“This is the first time that a leaf point has been recovered in a modern excavation," explains Nicholas Conard, professor at the University of Tübingen (Gemrany), which allows researchers to study this new find with state-of-the-art methods.” The last time researchers in the region recovered such artefacts was in 1936. The chert artefact measures 7.6 cm long, 4.1 cm wide, 0.9 cm thick and weighs 28 grams. “Our results document how the tool was made, how it was used and why it was discarded," says Nicholas Conard. Thanks to a series of four ESR dates (Electron Spin Resonance, a technique for dating ancient materials), we were able to date the find reliably to more than 65 000 years ago. Until now, leaf points were interpreted as dating to the period between 45,000 and 55,000 years ago, and belonging to the last cultural phase of Neanderthals in Central Europe. "These new results demonstrate that our assumptions about the dating of late Neanderthal cultural groups were wrong and need to be revised."

Veerle Rots, director of the TraceoLab at the University of Liège (Belgium), carried out the microscopic analysis of the leaf point. "The damage to the point indicates that the artefact was used as a projectile, and that the spear was probably thrusted into the prey rather than being thrown," explains Veerle Rots, Archeologist at the University of Liege. The point was probably hafted in using bindings and glue. The Neanderthals clearly used the spear for hunting. While they were resharpening the tool, it partially fractured, which led to its discard. "Neanderthals were experts in stone knapping and knew exactly how to make and use complex technologies combining multiple parts and materials to produce and maintain deadly weapons," says Veerle Rots. Long before Neanderthal, during the time of Homo heidelbergensis, hunters used pointed wooden spears to hunt, but these spears did not have mounted stone points like those used by Neanderthals. This discovery has therefore enabled the research teams to push back in time the appearance of the leaf point and to identify its use as a hunting weapon, but also, more generally, to contribute to the understanding of the evolution of hunting practices of Neanderthals.

csm 21-07-22 Hohle Fels. Das Feuersteinartefakt in FundlageUniversitaet Tuebingen - Foto A. Janas 88d5558854 

Hohle Fels. The chert artifact in finding position ©A.Janas/University of Tübingen

Scientific references

Nicholas J. Conard, Alexander Janas: "Ausgrabungen im Hohle Fels: Fundschichten aus dem Mittelpaläolithikum und Neues zur Jagdtechnik der Neandertaler". Archäologische Ausgrabungen in Baden-Württemberg 2020, Juli 2021, S. 60-65.

Veerle Rots, Justin Coppe, Nicholas J. Conard: "A Leaf Point Documents Hunting with Spears in the Middle Paleolithic at Hohle Fels, Germany / Eine Blattspitze belegt die Jagd mit Speeren im Mittelpaläolithikum am Hohle Fels, Deutschland. Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte 30 (2021), S.1-28.


Veerle Rots - University of Liege
Nicholas Conard - University of Tübingen

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