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Tracing the History of Bow and Arrow Technology in Europe

New study could push back the age of archery in Europe and shed new light on weaponry of Neanderthal populations

by University of Connecticut
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If the emergence of mechanically propelled weapons in prehistory is commonly perceived as one of the hallmarks of the advance of modern human populations into the European continent, the existence of archery has always been more difficult to trace. The recognition of these technologies in the European Upper Paleolithic has been hampered by ballistic overlaps between weapons projected with a thruster or a bow. Archery technologies are essentially based on the use of perishable materials; wood, fibers, leather, resins, and sinew, which are rarely preserved in European Paleolithic sites and make archaeological recognition of these technologies difficult. It is the flint armatures that constitute the main evidence of these weapon technologies. Based on the analysis of these stone armatures, the recognition of archery is now well documented in Africa dating back some 70,000 years.

Some flint or deer antler armatures suggest the existence of archery from the early phases of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe more than 35,000 years ago, but the morphology and the hafting modes of these ancient armatures do not allow them to be linked to a distinct mode of propulsion, making the possible existence of archery during the European Paleolithic nearly invisible. The demonstration of Paleolithic archery has been established only on the basis of the discovery of the oldest bows and arrows found in peat bogs of Northern Europe (at the Stellmoor site in Germany, for example) and dated from the 10 to 12 millennium.

The data from Mandrin cave in Mediterranean France, presented in an article published in the journal Science Advances, profoundly enriches our knowledge of these technologies in Europe and now allows us to push back the age of archery in Europe by more than...40 millennia! The study is based on the functional analysis of thousands of flint artifacts from the same archaeological level that revealed in February 2022 the oldest occupation of modern humans on the European continent. This very rich level, attributed to the Neronian culture, testifies to Homo sapiens occupations dating back to the 54th millennium and is interposed between numerous Neanderthal occupations occupying the cave before and after the modern human installations.

The excavation of the Neronian settlement phases has revealed no less than 1,500 flint points. Their analysis shows that a significant number of them were used as armatures for arrows propelled with a bow. It is the very small size and more precisely the small width of these armatures, of which some 30 percent weigh hardly more than a few grams, which allows us to exclude any other mode of ballistic propulsion for these very small weapons. If thanks to this study, archery in Europe, and more broadly throughout Eurasia, makes a remarkable leap back in time, it also sheds light on the weaponry of Neanderthal populations. The study shows that Neanderthals, contemporaries of Neronian modern humans, did not develop mechanically propelled weapons (like technologies using bows or thrusters) and continued to use their traditional weapons based on the use of massive spear-shaped points that were thrusted or thrown by hand, and thus requiring close contact with their game.

The traditions and technologies mastered by these two populations were thus profoundly distinct, illustrating a remarkable objective technological advantage to modern populations during their expansion into the European continent. However, in their article, the authors place this debate in a much broader context in which technical choices cannot be limited solely to the cognitive capacities of differing human populations, referring us to the weight of traditions within these Neanderthal and modern human populations as well as to ethologies that may have been profoundly divergent between them.

- This press release was originally published on the University of Connecticut website