Earliest bows and arrows in Europe

Remains from a France cave have provided evidence of a bow and arrow that's over 50,000 years old
24 February 2023

Interview with 

Emma Pomeroy, University of Cambridge


A bow and arrow


The bow and arrow is arguably one of the most important tools our ancestors invented. But when did they do that, where, and how did this technology spread? And what role, if any, did it play in helping anatomically modern humans - i.e. us - to migrate out of Africa and across the rest of the world? And did we share these tools with our Neanderthal relatives who coexisted alongside us for much of our evolutionary history. Or, more macabre, did us having these weapons contribute to the eventual disappearance of Neanderthals 40,000 years ago? Some of these questions have been answered this week in a cave in France, where Laure Metz uncovered tiny flint points that, her experiments show, appear to have been used as arrowheads. She even fired replicas into dead goats to prove they really work. Emma Pomeroy is an archaeologist who studies this period in our history at the University of Cambridge. I asked her to take a look at the findings for me…

Emma - This study is reporting what is probably the earliest evidence for bow and arrow use in Europe. It's from a site called Grotte Mandrin which is in the Rhone Valley in France. And these are stone tools from a particular layer - layer E - that dates to about 54,000 years ago. It includes these really tiny points that are less than one centimetre across. So what they've done is some really detailed analysis, including microscopic work to see what they were used for and some experimental work to compare how these kinds of points would break when they're fired into something. And basically they've concluded and shown really interesting evidence that these tiny points were likely mounted on the end of a shaft and used as a projectile. And it's significant because we know from recent populations who use bows and arrows, when you put a tip on the end of a shaft like this, those tips aren't effective if the shaft is much wider than the tip itself. So these must have been on really narrow shafts with a narrow projectile like that. They're not effective if you throw them. So that indicates that they must have been used with a bow and arrow. So this pushes back the date for this mechanically assisted technology in Europe by about 10,000 years. And also the presence of modern humans, interestingly, by about 10,000 years.

Chris - And who would've been wielding these weapons?

Emma - So that's a really good question, and it's one that's sometimes hard to be a hundred percent sure of because if we find particular tools, it's really hard to know which group of human ancestors might have produced and used them. And we know, for example, in this area at this time, there are Neanderthals and our own species, modern humans around. The assumption has long been that this kind of mechanically assisted projectile technology is associated with our species, with modern humans. And interestingly, at this site in the same layer, layer E, they actually found a tooth which belongs to a modern human rather than a Neanderthal. And in the layers above and below, they found Neanderthal teeth in those layers. So of course, the association between the tools and the teeth isn't necessarily saying that has to be that species that made it because their teeth are in the same layer, but it is quite suggestive that those are the kinds of humans that are around at that time. And so they're producing the tools and similarly, for example, at a site in Italy where we have some early projectile evidence as well, we have that evidence in association with modern human remains too.

Chris - Not long after this time Neanderthals disappear from the timeline. So do you think the two are connected?

Emma - Oh, it's possible. And that's an interesting argument that is sort of of suggested in this paper. So Neanderthals really go extinct in Eurasia about 40,000 years ago. So that's a good 14,000 years more recently than these particular artifacts. But one suggestion they're making is that these are sort of early forays by modern humans into Europe with this more complex technology and that that might have played a role in giving them perhaps a competitive edge over Neanderthals.

Chris - What do you think might have provoked anatomically modern humans who engineered this technology to invent it in the first place? And why them not the Neanderthals if they were overlapping in similar environments therefore presumably getting the same advantage from these sorts of technologies? Why did one not get it from the other or both invent it independently if it was so advantageous?

Emma - That's a really good question, and that's something that academics have debated about for a long time, and there might be various factors involved. So one idea is that anatomically modern humans, our species, were capable of more innovative behaviour and coming up with new ideas and new technology more frequently than the Neanderthals. There might be an element of chance in it as well. So even amongst different modern human populations, we know that not all of them had the bow and arrow and not all of them independently invented it. In those that didn't already have it, you could also ask, and this is suggested in the paper, if these modern humans are turning up and they've got this really advantageous technology, why don't the Neanderthals here in that region think, "This looks good. This would be good for us. We'll copy that and do the same." Or perhaps in this case as well we know Neanderthals and modern humans are using the same site, but the extent to which they actually encountered each other and had the opportunity to see what each other were doing and perhaps stop that technology we don't know.



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