Monday, January 21, 2019


Dana Kern made a comment on a previous post on the Schoningen spears, a set of six wooden pointed javelins, dating back to over 300,000 years ago, asking why there were no stone tips?  The archaeological record shows numerous stone spear points after the 300,000 year mark.  In fact, researchers excavating the Kathu Pan site in Southern Africa have found a spearpoint potentially dated to around 500,000 years ago.  They ascertain it is a spearpoint by studying the tip fracture to other known spearpoints.  Of course, continuing study is going into this.  Early man recognized the greater effectiveness of sharp stone spear tips in taking game.  But, the whole process of hafting, attaching a point to a shaft, is a complicated subject.  Fore thought and planning have to proceed making a spear.  The use and ability to control fire is necessary to produce an adhesive filler if used.  Making a suitable notch and binding it with plant cordage or animal hide or sinew, is key to producing a sufficiently strong haft, that will hold when facing potentially dangerous or cornered game.  Scientists also recognize the importance that language plays to communicate the ideas and methods to make spears and coordinate hunts.  Of course, you can’t forget the skill to produce a stone point is paramount.  This doesn’t answer why the Schoningen spears did not have stone tips.  But, but hopefully we can recognize what a technical achievement the act of fastening a stone to a wooden shaft is.

Technics of Fire Making

The ability to make primitive fire, breaks down to several major methods:  percussion, compression, and friction.  Then there are subdivisions of those.  Percussion would consist of striking sparks off of pyrites, or some bamboos, with flints.  Compression is done with a specially constructed fire piston.  Friction has the largest variation of potential technics, between rotating methods and sawing/linear technics.  The methods that involve rotating a spindle against a fireboard include hand drills, bow & drill, strap drill, and pump drill.  The sawing/linear friction technics consist of the fire plow, fire thong, Rutger roll, and fire saw variations.  Pictured is the hand drill friction fire method.  A straight slender shaft of appropriate wood is spun between the palm of the hands, against a light/medium density wood fireboard.  There is a notch cut into the forming depression.  Fibers are ground off the drill and fireboard, that build up in the notch.  The heat from the friction generates an ignition temperature around 400 - 800 degrees F., combusting the fibers into a hot smoldering coal.  To make fire you need to place the coal into a nest of combustible materials, and spread and increase the temperature, by blowing into it, till it bursts to flame.

Early Human vs. Saber Tooth Cat

Between 2011 and 2015, archaeologists at the Schoningen lignite mine, in Germany, unearthed the partial remains of three saber tooth cats.  These skeletal remains were found in the same layer as the six wooden spears excavated years earlier, dating back 300,000 years ago.  Scientists speculate that early man  (homo heidelbergenis) not only used these spears for hunting horse and deer, but to defend themselves from saber tooth cat on the shore of the ancient lake.  Analysis of the latest cat excavated showed it was a formidable predator with 10 cm/4 inch canines, at 200 kg/445 lb, standing a meter /(3.28 feet) at the shoulders.  Further papers will be published on the finds in the future.  Pictured are leg bone, teeth, and skull cap from some of the finds, and one of the spears recovered.

Sunday, January 20, 2019


A lot of the tools and technics used in the European Stone Age were similarly found in other cultures around the world - handdrill fire making, darts & atlatl, blade cores.  One of the unique innovations of the Aurignacian culture (28,000 - 21,000 BP) was a specialized tool called the burin.  They had refined striking blades off of a specially prepared stone cores, to modify into other tool forms - end scrapers, backed knives, perforators, shaft scrapers, and burins.  A burin was a flint blade broken at an angle and beveled into a chisel-like tool.  This was used to carve antler, wood, and bone.  Archaeologists say this invention helped to create a whole new series of bone and antler tools. Some of the earliest carvings of bone and ivory were made at this time.  The burin was used to score deep parallel grooves in lengths of antler and bone to isolate slivers that were pried out and worked into needles and spear points.  This burin was made by snapping a blade at an angle, then a quick stroke with a hammerstone leaves a sharp beveled chisel edge.  Lower left, is a burin from the Upper Paleolithic.  Low right, blade core.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Stone Age Use of Asphaltum

Bitumen, or asphatum, is another adhesive material used by prehistoric peoples. When we read asphaltum - we think of the road covering.  I think road asphalt is a mixture of asphaltum and gravel..?  Wherever oil seeps to the surface, on land or sea - and washes up on shore, and the lighter faction evaporates, black sticky tar is left behind.  This can dry into solid masses.  This is what is gathered and heated to haft knives and projectile points, water proof and caulk, or  utilized as a decorative pigment.  The earliest known use was by the Neanderthal peoples 40,000 years ago.  Artifacts were found in Gura Cheii Cave, in Romania, and on stone tools in Syria.  Most notably in the US, the La Brea tar pits of California were used for thousands of years by the Native populations as a source of the material.  Artifacts have been found, hafted with asphaltum, originating from Texas and California.  The hard pieces are heated to soften and used as is, or further processed by mixing with charcoal or plant fibers to strengthen.  Pictured is a steatite/soapstone bowl used to melt the asphaltum, and a natural hardened chunk  from California, setting on top of the stone biface.  Also pictured is a saber tooth tiger skull replica from a skull recovered from the La Brea tar pits in California.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Hand Axe II

The prehistoric handaxe, a hand sized tear dropped shaped stone tool, had been utilized for tens of thousands of years.  First making its appearance in Africa, it was the first deliberately stylized form of stone tool working.  Some considered it the “Swiss army knife” of the Stone Age because of its diverse uses.   You carried everything you owned, so you only carried what was important.  A multi-functional tool like the handaxe could be used for a variety of tasks.  The tip was good for digging and piercing, for getting to buried bulbs or tubers, or making the incision on a fresh kill.  The upper edges near the tip were thinned, like a knife, for cutting and butchering.  The deep flake scars in the middle range work well for scraping shafts, also for producing shavings for tinder in wet weather.  Edges closer to the base were suitable for chopping and hacking functions.  The thick butt made a good handhold as well as serving as a good tool for pounding and smashing.  If needed, the handaxe was also a core that sharp flakes could be removed from.  Basically, a knife, hammer, pick, axe, scraper, blade core, and more - all in one.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Eating insects

Ever time you see Paleo peoples hunting they are portrayed spearing giant mammoths, or driving extinct bison over a cliff.  Archaeologists study prehistoric coprolites, fossilized dung, from human habitations have identified food eaten thousands of years ago...meat, plant matter, nuts, berries, - and insects.  Coprolites from Lakeside Cave in the Great Basin of the US, reveal that grasshoppers were harvested and consumed 4,500 years ago.  Coprolites with insects parts and exoskeletons have been recovered from numerous sites around the US.  Seasonal insects provided key nutrients and were low risk compared to hunting.  At a session of the Bois d’ Arc Primitive Skills Gathering & Knap In, in Missouri,  I participated in eating insects.  In the early morning, while it was cooler and some insects were moving slower, we gathered grasshoppers, crickets, wasp larvae, grubs, wolf and orb spiders. These were fried to kill any internal parasites and consumed by the adults and children.  Initially the idea of eating insects was a mental challenge, but diminished with each bite.  A lot of the insects were either nutty or buttery tasting.  We envision early people’s eating meat , but clearly they took advantage of other opportunistic protein resources.  (Bottom:  oldest known Neanderthal fecal matter, 50,000 years ago, from El Salt in Spain.)