Ancient arrows and Africa’s place as the cradle of technology

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Microscopic analysis. Left, traces of blood. Right, bone fragments.

A team of archaeologists led by Dr. Marlize Lombard from the University of Johannesburg in South Africa have discovered the first direct evidence of the use of arrows by man. The information, published in the journal Antiquity last week, reveals that several ancient arrowheads, dated over 64,000 years, were discovered in a Sibudu cave, about 40 kilometers north of Durban. Traces of glue on the tips of the cut stones show that humans, even at that time, could construct complex tools.

The invention of the bow and arrow was a key moment in the history of mankind. And the recent discovery of the arrowheads on the east coast of South Africa by doctor Marlize Lombard’s team pushes the emergence of the arrow back by at least 20,000 years. The discoveries still bear residues of blood and bones of the prey and are the vestiges of weapons that were used for hunting some 64,000 years ago.

Microscopic analysis. Left, traces of blood. Right, bone fragments.Given the fact that wooden or organic parts of weapons, like wood or bones, rarely survive the test of time, the deduction of the weapon’s initial use as a bow and arrow was very slim. And although they are triangular in shape, it was after the arrowheads had undergone microscopic analysis that the various residues on them helped identify them as arrows.

The scientific examination of the arrowheads revealed traces of blood, bone and “glue”. The presence of these elements on the arrow heads shows how they were used. By locating the site of impact on the arrow heads and their visible damage, archaeologists were able to determine that they were in all probability projectile points, rather than spear points which are held in hand.

The glue used was made from resin-based plants, and demonstrates that the head was attached to another structure or probably a wooden shaft. All put together, it formed an arrow that could be projected with a rudimentary bow.


64,000 year old arrowheadsThe discovery, after tediously excavating through layers deposited up to 100,000 years ago, pushes back by some 20 000 years the most ancient record of man’s conception of technology. According to the researchers, it is without a doubt around the same time, 60,000 or 70,000 years ago, that our ancestors began to think similarly to humans of today.

And the group of researchers argue that “hunting with a bow and arrow requires intricate multi-staged planning, material collection and tool preparation and implies a range of innovative social and communication skills.” Indeed, the use of a glue substance to manufacture and arrow by attaching the arrow head to a shaft requires pre-meditation. Also the use of the prehistoric glue would have required several steps to achieve a complex recipe.

According to Dr. Lombard, “The presence of glue implies that people were able to produce composite tools – tools where different elements produced from different materials are glued together to make a single artefact (…) This is an indicator of a cognitively demanding behaviour” said Dr Lombard.

The discovery does not only consolidate Africa’s place as the cradle of humanity but also indicates that Africa could be the continent where the first technologies were developed.

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