54,000-year-old flints suggest ‘Homo sapiens’ were already shooting arrows when they made contact with Neanderthals

Hundreds of small stones found in a cave in southern France indicate that both species met millennia earlier than previously thought

Several hundred flint artifacts have been found in Grotte Madrin – a cave near Montélimar, in the south of France
Several hundred flint artifacts have been found in Grotte Madrin – a cave near Montélimar, in the south of FrancePhilippe PSaïla

The story about the first encounters between Neanderthals and modern humans could depend on hundreds of small stones, recently discovered in a cave in southern France.

Carved with care, these flints would have been used as arrowheads, according to the authors of the discovery. Dating back about 54,000 years, this would be the oldest example of their use in Western Europe.

There’s consensus among scholars of human evolution that the bow and arrow was a technology that gave modern humans a competitive advantage over Neanderthals. If confirmed, this discovery would mean that Homo sapiens made contact with them much earlier than previously thought. But there are still traces of doubt among several scientists.

In February of last year, a group of French scientists published a study that raised as much dust as skepticism among paleontologists. In that article, they detailed the discovery of several teeth in a cave in the Rhône Valley, in France. All belonged to Neanderthals, except for one: an incomplete milk tooth from a child no more than seven years old.

The scientists maintain that the tooth belonged to a Homo sapiens – that is, to a modern human. They estimated that it must be about 54,000 years old. The problem with this dating is that it would imply moving up the accepted date of arrival of modern humans to Western Europe by several millennia. Hence the relevance of this new work – published in Science Advances – is that it offers up even more evidence: arrows, an invention of modern humans.

For about 300,000 years, the European territories were the domain of the Neanderthals, who went extinct about 40,000 years ago. Although the topic is hotly debated, for scientists, these humans would have succumbed to a process which saw the expansion of other humans – specifically, the modern ones.

During this period, sapiens left Africa through Suez and spread throughout the rest of the world, reaching Western Europe in the final part of the Middle Paleolithic era. The clearest clues are found in Germany and Italy, originating from between 48,000 and 45,000 years ago.

The same researchers who found the milk tooth found some 1,500 stone artifacts in the same layer of soil. Made mostly of flint, these cutting blades are sharp on both sides, with a blunt end. The small triangular-shaped points indicate that they must be arrowheads. Hence, this would imply that modern humans used the bow and arrow to hunt – a technology that Neanderthals didn’t have, giving Sapiens a competitive advantage.

These artifacts have been studied in great detail. The scientists have even used the materials to craft their own arrows and shoot them at animals, to see how effective they are and how they compare to the ones recently found in the cave.

The researchers used the flints to make their own arrows and shoot them at animals. They wanted to know if the impact marks observed would indicate that the artifacts had been used as arrows by sapiens)
The researchers used the flints to make their own arrows and shoot them at animals. They wanted to know if the impact marks observed would indicate that the artifacts had been used as arrows by sapiens)Ludovic Slimak

Laure Metz – a researcher at the University of Aix-Marseille and first author of the study – explains the relevance of analyzing these pieces:

“By studying the tips and all the other artifacts discovered in the Mandrin cave, we deeply enrich our knowledge of these technologies in Europe… it allows us to push back the era of archery in Europe by more than 40,000 years.”

The comparison with what was found in other layers that correspond to the Neanderthal era also allows us to know what weapons they used.

“The study shows that Neanderthals didn’t develop mechanically propelled weapons and continued to use their traditional weapons, based on the use of huge spear-shaped points that were pushed or thrown by hand,” Metz concludes.

Another senior author of the article – Ludovic Slimak, a researcher at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès – tells EL PAÍS via email what he considers to be the importance of the recently-discovered arrows:

“The [bow and arrow] offers a fundamental competitive advantage to populations familiar with this technology.”

He also recalls that bows and other propulsion systems allowed for hunting at a distance, with greater speed, efficiency and precision.

“The list is very long… it makes a big difference with populations that only used heavy hand-thrown spears, such as the Neanderthals.” These required close contact with their prey – something that complicates hunting and makes it much more dangerous.

“[Arrows] offer safe, easy and nearly-infinite access to protein. This must have had a direct impact on how many people you [could] feed and, therefore, how many children you [could] safely support.”

Joseba Ríos Garaizar – who works at the Bilbao Archaeological Museum in Spain – is an expert in the lithic industry of ancient humans. He studies their stone tools and weapons – particularly the marks left by their use. For him, the hypothesis posed by this work is very suggestive, but he believes that [the conclusions] could go too far.

“It’s clear that some of the [flints] leave impact marks, but not all of them. They could have been part of a propelled weapon – but that they were arrows is saying a lot,” he cautions.

Another question raised by the study is the dating of the tips. To date the stratum where they found them – as well as the milk tooth – the scientists resorted to the soot from the bonfires that had accumulated on the walls of the cave. The Mandrin grotto has been inhabited for millennia, but not continuously. Therefore, layers of soot alternate with calcium carbonate. Like tree rings, this allowed the scientists to estimate that the artifacts and remains were 54,000 years old.

Enrique Baquedano – director of the Archaeological and Paleontological Museum of Madrid – notes that this dating technique must be combined with others. Even if this is done, he says, “it’s still a very complicated dating [process].”

Baquedano agrees with Ríos Garaizar in highlighting the questionable nature of the hypothesis of the first modern humans, armed with their bows and arrows. But he also mentions another hole in the theory:

“It’s a very powerful [scientific] result… but it depends on a single milk tooth that’s not even complete. It’s broken.”

Baquedano – who recently published a paper on hunting and its symbolism among Neanderthals – also emphasizes that, “while it’s true that [Neanderthals] didn’t have arrows, their lithic industry also includes very small things.”

Juan Luis Arsuaga – co-director of Archaeological Site of Atapuerca, near Burgos, Spain – likes the idea that the artifacts are arrows and thinks that they indeed belong to some of the first modern humans to arrive in Europe, but, via email, he agrees that “this would have to be proven.”

Like other colleagues, he doubts the positive identification that was made of the milk tooth. He doesn’t comment on the arrows, since, he says, it’s a question that archaeologists must solve – not paleontologists like him.

For Arsuaga, there are three possibilities: “Either the Neanderthals used bows and arrows… or the inhabitants of the Mandrin cave were Cro-Magnons (modern humans)... or the stone tips were not for arrows or assegai, but for javelins that were thrown by hand.”

The research project states that the soot on the walls of the cave indicates that the first inhabitants barely lived for 40 years in the shelter. Afterwards, there is no more trace of them in the strata of the cave that, centuries later, would be used again by the Neanderthals.

When asked why a group with superior technology didn’t survive another generation, Slimak – who has been defending his thesis since he began digging at Mandrin two decades ago – made the following point:

“The ability to reach a territory does not imply that your population will remain [there] forever. An important issue for nomadic populations living in small groups is being able to create a strong network of social connections with Indigenous populations. This is essential, since the survival of any traditional nomadic population requires the exchange of genes to reproduce and survive.”

Although this happened millennia later – as shown by the percentage of Neanderthal DNA in present-day humans – it seems that this was not the case with the sapiens who sheltered in the Mandrin cave.

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