Forget the Stone Age: Archaeologists Crack Secret Wood Age!

The Spear Horizon site shows early evidence of splitting and carving wood, leading archaeologists to claim that wood-based weapons date back to the Stone Age.

Mon 13 May 24


Neanderthals were far better at crafting materials than first thought, with archaeologists now analysing 300,000-plus-year-old wooden tools, shaking up cultural appropriations of the Old World and the complex relationships between Neanderthals and early Homo Saipans. 

The findings come from a study, The wooden artifacts from Schöningen’s Spear Horizon and their place in human evolution, marking the first comprehensive report after objects excavated during a 15-year-period between 1994 and 2008 in the peat of an open-pit coal mine near Schöningen, northern Germany.

That excavation, born from the discovery of wooden spears, stone tools, and the butchered remains of wild horses in the mid-1990s, completely upended prevailing ideas about extinct human ancestors’ intelligence, social interaction, and toolmaking skills. At the time, the scientific consensus was that humans were simple scavengers who lived hand-to-mouth until about 40,000 years ago.

Long before Homo sapiens populated the earth, the Neanderthals lived in Eurasia. Now, paleoanthropologists in England and France are using new archeological methods to shed light on some previously unexplained Neanderthal mysteries. Footage courtesy of @DWDocumentary.

According to Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist and head of research at the Department of Cultural Heritage of Lower Saxony in Germany, the Stone Age – which chronologically came before the Bronze and Iron Ages – may as well be called the Wood Age:

“We can probably assume that wooden tools have been around just as long as stone ones, that is, two and a half or three million years,” Dr Terberger said, “but since wood deteriorates and rarely survives, preservation bias distorts our view of antiquity.” 

The major find – which comes after global archaeologists last year uncovered the first known wooden structure used by Homo Saipans in Zambia (dating back 476,000 years) – is “considered the oldest preserved hunting weapons,” according to the New York Times

According to, the objects, known as “spear weapons,” were carved by hand using “exceptional craftmanship” and made from spruce, pine, and larch “2 to 3 miles from the excavation site” with evidence of “tool maintenance and recycling.” In what could amount to the first known example of a circular economy in action.

This 1.5-metre-long timber was worked and shaped by members of an extinct species of humans half a million years ago. (Photo Credit: Deep Roots of Humanity research project and University of Liverpool)
Last year, global archaeologists discovered the world’s oldest known example of woodwork – a 1.5-metre-long piece of timber, worked and shaped by members of an extinct species of humans half a million years ago. (Photo Credit: Deep Roots of Humanity research project and University of Liverpool)

Dr Terberger said the objects provide a rare insight into a hugely significant period of civilisation when at the end of a warm interglacial period, early Neanderthals were supplanting Homo heidelbergensis, their immediate predecessors in Europe.

“It turned out that these pre-Homo sapiens had fashioned tools and weapons to hunt big game,” Dr Terberger said, adding: “Not only did they communicate together to topple prey, but they were sophisticated enough to organise the butchering and roasting.”

The multi-year study examined more than 700 pieces of wood from the Spear Horizon. Many had spent the previous two decades in chilled tubs of distilled water to simulate the waterlogged sediment, crucial for preserving and protecting the artefacts from decay.

Using 3D microscopy and micro-CT scanners, researchers highlighted signs of wear or cut marks, and from this, they identified 187 different wood specimens that showed evidence of splitting, scraping, or abrasion. 

Archaeologists traced the lifecycle of the wooden artefacts. (Illustration: Dirk Leder as part of The wooden artifacts from Schöningen’s Spear Horizon and their place in human evolution)

“Until now, splitting wood was thought to have been practised only by modern humans,” according to Dirk Leder, an archaeologist at Lower Saxony and lead author of the study.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation is that the spear points were resharpened after blunting, with evidence that early humans whittled down, polished and repurposed broken weapons for new use. 

“The wood that we identified as working debris suggested that tools were repaired and recycled into new tools for other tasks,” according to Annemieke Milks, an anthropologist from the University of Reading, who also contributed to the study. 

On close inspection of the spears, archaeologists revealed that the Stone Ageers followed a careful process (the first example of carpentry) to build the structures, including stripping back the bark, removing the branches, sharpening the spearhead and hardening the wood in the fire.

The study illustrated the extraction and manufacturing process deployed by early Neanderthals in making spears and weapons. (Illustration: Dirk Leder as part of The wooden artifacts from Schöningen’s Spear Horizon and their place in human evolution)

“The wooden tools had a higher level of technological complexity than we usually see in stone tools from that age,” Dr Leder said. Dr Milks added that the spears were made from dense wood with thick diameters—shaped and balanced like modern javelins, with the centre of gravity in the middle of the shaft, allowing for high accuracy in throwing.

“To me, that suggests the hominids manufacturing them may have intentionally designed at least some as flight weapons for hunting,” Dr Milks said, adding that the research helps to humanise early Neanderthals—clustered around a campfire, assembling and sanding handicrafts.

“Working wood is slow, even if you’re good at it…there are lots of different steps in the process,” she said. “It all seems very, very close, in a way…even though it was such a long, long time ago.”


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