Some 300,000 years ago, an early hunter dropped a 30-inch stick in wet mud, and there it stayed through the Last Ice Age, two world wars and the dawning of the internet. The literal stick-in-the-mud remained in excellent condition, considering the amount of time, although it suffered some fungal and root damage.
A new study has unearthed the stick and determines that it was once used as a hunting weapon and thrown like a boomerang.
Ancient craftspeople demonstrated great skill in seasoning the stick and sharpening it on each end.
“The woodworking involved multiple steps including cutting and stripping off the bark, carving it into an aerodynamic shape, scraping away more of the surface, seasoning the wood to avoid cracking and warping and sanding it for easier handling,” said archaeologist Dirk Leder in a statement.
The ancient woodworkers (likely Neanderthals or another early human species) stripped away knots from the spruce branch, the growth rings of which indicated less-than-favorable growing conditions. The researchers say the craftspeople would have just left a warmer interglacial period and entered a new glacial one with cooling temperatures.
Archaeologists first discovered the 30-inch stick in 1994 but weren’t sure whether to consider it an anomaly until they discovered a second, similar tool. Compared to ancient stone tools, wooden ones are less understood but have revealed a great deal about ancient societies.
“Discoveries of wooden tools have revolutionized our understanding of early human behaviors,” said Annemieke Milks, an archaeologist with the University of Reading, in a statement. “Amazingly, these early humans demonstrated an ability to plan well in advance, a strong knowledge of the properties of wood, and many sophisticated woodworking skills that we still use today.”
The two sharpened sticks and other spears recovered from a lakeside site near the town of Schöningen, Germany, stand as the earliest large-scale record of humanly-made wooden tools.
The study suggests that the stick was used to hunt medium-sized game such as red or roe deer, or perhaps small, fast-moving animals such as hare and birds. The tool worked through impact, and dark areas on the points could reflect blood or fat.
The stick may also have served as a toy spear for children, a practice seen in other hunter-gatherer societies. As a miniature version of the adult weapon, it would have allowed children to practice their skills and participate in hunting. The stick’s slightly curved shape, however, doesn’t reflect the spears recovered from the site.
Read More: Which Animals Did Early Humans Mainly Hunt?