A harpoon tip dating to 35,000 years ago has been discovered on Timor, an island 250 miles northeast of Darwin, Australia. The ancient artifact, which was hewn from bone, is notable for its design, the complexity of which suggests humans in the region manufactured sophisticated weaponry earlier than previously believed.
Above: The location of Timor, an island at the southern end of Maritime Southeast Asia.
In the January 15th issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, researchers led by Australian National University archaeologist Sue O'Connor propose that the ancient inhabitants of Timor used harpoons to hunt large fish from boats. The notion that our ancestors were equipped to make meals of ocean animals 35,000 years ago is not, in itself, surprising; in 2011, another team led by O'Connor reported the discovery of a shelter in East Timor harboring the remains of pelagic and other fish species dating to 42,000 years ago – compelling evidence that early modern humans in the region successfully practiced deep-sea fishing.
Above: The world's oldest fish hook, Credit: S. O'Connor.
Presented alongside the pelagic-fish-find was the world's earliest definitive evidence for fishhook manufacture – an unmistakably J-shaped crook of carved seashell, dated to between 23,000 and 16,000 years ago. "Capturing pelagic fish such as tuna requires high levels of planning and complex maritime technology," concluded the researchers at the time.
What makes the harpoon head noteworthy, then, is not necessarily its age or its implied use, but its design. At the base of the tip, which measures about one inch in length and half an inch across, are a series of worn notches and residue from a sticky substance. Together, these features suggest the point was secured to a wooden handle with rope and glue in an advanced weapon-making technique known as "hafting."
Artist Angela Frost reconstructs what the harpoon tip might have looked like bound to the side of a shaft, or the center of a hollow length of bamboo.
O'Connor's team describes the significance of the finding:
The artefact provides the earliest direct evidence for the use of this combination of hafting technologies in the wider region of Southeast Asia, Wallacea, Melanesia and Australasia, and is morphologically unparallelled [sic] in deposits of any age. By contrast, it bears a close morphological resemblance to certain bone artefacts from the Middle Stone Age of Africa and South Asia. Examination of ethnographic projectile technology from the region of Melanesia and Australasia shows that all of the technological elements observed in the Matja Kuru 2 artefact were in use historically in the region, including the unusual feature of bilateral notching to stabilize a hafted point. This artefact challenges the notion that complex bone-working and hafting technologies were a relatively late innovation in this part of the world.
Read the full details of the discovery in the Journal of Human Evolution.
Top photo via O'Connor et al.