Researchers Discover the Hot New Technology: Throwing Javelins

More evidence that early technologies—and language—predate humanity itself

homo heidelbergensis skull (José-Manuel Benito Álvarez)

iPhones, staplers, aluminum foil. Humans are surrounded and defined by their technologies. We might even say: Technology makes us human.

But that’s not quite true, because we know that other animals employ and deploy tools, too. Primates use twiggy Roto-Rooters to search for bugs. All sorts of creatures make homes for themselves; bowerbirds sculpt fantastical ones.

And now we know it’s not quite true either, historically. New archeological evidence indicates that our ancestors used a certain kind of tool—a “complex tool,” in the parlance of anthropologists—when they were still our ancestors.

That is: They threw spear-tipped javelins, to catch and kill animals.

One of the spear tips that was found (Sahle, et al.)

We know because archeologists just located the stone tips of the arrows in the Rift Valley of central Ethiopia. Cracks in the stone indicate that they were likely thrown (as opposed to used for stabbing or bludgeoning prey), and they’re too old to be used by modern humans.

That’s because the tips are 280,000 years old. Homo sapiens—us—appear first in Africa about 200,000 years ago. The tips were used, instead, by the homo heidelbergensis, the dominant hominid from about 1.3 million years ago to 600,000 years ago.

“You see a shift in anatomical structures that would have allowed us to speak, and a shift toward more complex tools,” John Shea, a paleontologist at Stony Brook University, told National Geographic, which first reported the story.

Complex tools require language: They can’t be transmitted by demonstration and imitation. Together with these spear tips, a discovery last autumn—that the homo heidelbergensis used stone blades with handles half a million years ago—indicates that language existed much earlier than we may have thought. (Or, as Shea told Nat Geo last year: “[Making these tips] would probably not be something that could be taught by imitation. This is a technology that is so complex that it absolutely, positively requires language.”) The tips also raise the question of whether humans and Neanderthals borrowed early tools from the heidelbergensis, rather than developing them independently.

Tools now let human beings predict thunderstorms, summit mountains, and enter space. But tools aren’t the domain of human beings alone, not in the present, and not, today’s research shows, in history. And the tool above tools, the technology so core to human thinking that it may be no technology at all, is language.