The Schöningen Spears
The February 27th 1997 issue of the respected weekly scientific journal, "Nature", founded and edited for fifty years by Sir J. Norman Lockyer, one of the original astro-archaeologists, carried a story which is best introduced in the words of its first paragraph: "Just occasionally, an archaeological discovery leaves one speechless. Reasons usually concern the degree of preservation, the unexpectedness of the find, and its wider implications. The discovery of complete, unambiguous throwing-spears 380,000 to 400,000 years old at Schöningen in Germany ... meets all these criteria."
The area contains one of the many open-cast 'brown-coal' mines that dot the German landscape, and it was at Schöningen that what is now thought to be " ... the oldest complete hunting weapons so far discovered to have been used by humans ... " were found in 1995 by German archeologist, Hartmut Thieme.
What he discovered was a series of river channels, which contained deposits that were dated by their pollen and micro fauna to a newly recognised warm phase - an interglacial period in the middle Pleistocene. It was in the second of these channels that the spears were found. There is well-documented evidence from other European archaeological sites dating from 500,000 years ago, and it is now thought that this 'Reinsdorf Interglacial' period is the time when northern Europe was first being properly colonised.
The spears measured over 6ft. long, and were found together with stone tools, horse bones bearing butchery marks, and a possible hearth. Robin Dennell, writing about the discoveries in Nature, said that:
"Wooden finds like these would be sensational if only 3,000 years old; finds a hundred times older are almost unimaginable. Almost unimaginable, but not quite: a fairly complete spear from the last interglacial (115,000 to 125,000 years ago) was found in 1948, inside an elephant skeleton at Lehringen, Germany; and the tip of what might have been a spear was found at Clacton, England, in 1911, in deposits comparable in age to those at Schöningen."
For many years it had been believed that systematic big game hunting did not occur until the appearance of fully modern humans around 40,000 years ago. Previously it was believed that only scavenging by carnivores and hominids had taken place, and Dennell tells that:
"To fit this picture, the Clacton and Lehringen spears were down-graded to digging-sticks or, imaginatively, snow-probes for locating buried carcasses"
Just how many other discoveries lie forgotten ,or hidden, in the vaults of museums and university archaeology departments around the world, similarly 'down-graded' because they didn't fit whatever picture of prehistory was fashionable at the time, is an area of hot contention. The urgent reviews of the standard models of prehistory that such discoveries are initiating amongst a younger generation of archaeologists and paleontologists are motivated by the sort of feelings expressed by Dennell in that issue of "Nature":
"But the Schöningen discoveries are unambiguously spears; to regard them as snow-probes or digging sticks is like claiming that power-drills are paper-weights."
The wider implications of the Schöningen spears are both exciting and
mind-boggling. The skills needed to make them are not what have generally been
thought of as being within the capabilities of peoples 400,000 years ago. Each
individual spear is made from the trunk of a 30-year-old spruce tree, and in
each spear the end with the tip comes from the base of the trunk where the wood
Further, and with equally great implications for the erroneous picture of the achievements of prehistoric peoples that has been dominant for more than 200 years, each of the spears has the same proportions, with the centre of gravity a third of the way from the sharp tip - just like a modern javelin. Robin Dennell, who is at the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, speculates that efficient hunting techniques suggested by these finds may have been the key to survival in northern Europe at that time, when the climate was generally much colder than today.
In reference to the Schöningen spears he says:
"These represent considerable investment of time and skill - in selecting an appropriate tree, in roughing out the design and in the final stages of shaping. In other words, these hominids were not living within a spontaneous 'five-minute-culture', acting opportunistically in response to immediate situations.
Rather, we see considerable depth of planning, sophistication of design, and patience in carving the wood, all of which have been attributed only to modern humans."
Their discovery in itself is nothing short of a miracle. The mining at Schöningen is done by machinery that uses an 11-metre-diameter cutting-wheel, which cuts through several tons of 'brown-coal' a minute around the clock and throughout the year. Just a couple of inches difference and the Schöningen spears would have been lost forever.
How many more have already been lost, or will be lost by future mining on this
scale, it is impossible to say. Certainly the sophisticated thought processes
that went into their making suggests the existence of sophisticated cultures
long, long ago. Given this, is it really hard to imagine that evidence of
civilisations in the remote past, spoken of in myth and oral tradition, could
have been similarly destroyed?
Their discoverer, Hartmut Thieme, of the Institute of Ancient Monuments in
Hanover, Germany, raises similar questions to Dennell in the same issue of
"Found in association with stone tools and the butchered remains of ten horses, the spears strongly suggest that systematic hunting, involving foresight, planning and the use of appropriate technology, was part of the behavioural repertoire of pre-modern hominids. The use of sophisticated spears as early as the middle Pleistocene may mean that many current theories on early human behaviour and culture must be revised."
He began working at Schöningen in 1983, but it was not until 1992 that these
sites were discovered 8 to 15 metres below the surface. The three spears
discovered were of slightly different lengths, but all manufactured to the same
pattern, suggesting these skills had been developed over some considerable time,
and that their practitioners were capable of sharing amongst themselves not only
those skills, but also the under-pinning knowledge, and understanding of the
spears' practical usage.
Given the ability to appreciate proportion, and to work to those tight specifications 400,000 years ago, why is it that folk-tales and myths regarding 'golden ages' and 'advanced cultures' have been dismissed out of hand by many mainstream archaeologists? Surely there has been plenty of time during the past 400,000 years for many and various cultures to have developed, blossomed and then disappeared. To use modern civilisation as a yard-stick by which to judge ancient peoples abilities is the wrong focus. These spears show that it is the sophisticated thinking of their makers which reveal how 'advanced' their social organisations were, how capable they were of forward-planning and exploiting their environment for much more than simple spontaneous reactive survival.
Perhaps the catastrophic collapse of Bronze Age civilisations caused by natural disasters may explain this? Organic matter such as wood does not usually last very long unless preserved in optimum conditions. And, importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that hunting weapons of the level of sophistication evident in the Schöningen finds were peculiar to that specific location. There may be others similarly buried elsewhere ...
The sea-level changes at the start of the Holocene period, beginning approximately 18,000 to 12,000 years ago, and especially the rapid sea-level rises from 300 to 12 feet below the present levels between 9,000 BC and 5,000 BC, would surely have sent those living at the time scurrying to much higher ground, where archaeologists find much of their remains today.
The propensity of humans to build their settlements in low-lying coastal areas suggests that much remains to be discovered along the ancient shorelines. Perhaps some of those inundations have been adequately described by Plato in his Timaeus and Critias dialogues to have occurred, "...in one dreadful day and night...". The survivors of such catastrophes would have had little time to salvage much from any civilisations and cultures destroyed so rapidly, and what we find today may well be just the remains of those struggling on higher ground to survive the catastrophes and rebuild their shattered lives on a simple 'back-to-basics' level.
There have been many archaeological discoveries during the past few centuries that have not fitted in with the prevailing view of those times regarding our ancestors, prehistory in general, and ancient civilisation in particular. There have been the obvious well-recorded clashes between academics and religious organisations, though this tended simply to polarise opinion between the 'creationists' and the 'catastrophists', both of whom it seems would round on any others who proposed models of prehistory that challenged the narrow viewpoints of either.
Today, the peoples of industrialised societies on all continents have strayed far from the 'respect for natural phenomena' common to all ancient peoples. Very few still behold the natural world with the 'awe' that our ancestors felt as they stared out into the cosmos under pollution-free skies, and the average modern person will rarely have the time to study our planet's relationship to the rest of the visible universe that our ancestors had.
As we enter the 21st century technological advances have meant that communications between researchers in all disciplines are now almost instantaneous, making inter-disciplinary projects that much easier to co-ordinate, and allowing for the electronic distribution of research material to radically speed up the process of 'scientific peer review', though this process remains in the hands of those who fear to 'rock the boat'. New scientific 'models' of our past are being formulated in many disciplines, and are increasingly available to a much wider audience of both professional and amateur enthusiasts in all the historical sciences.
This has made it possible for the Morien Institute to gather material from far and wide to build our Ancient Mysteries Archive, which focuses on discoveries about prehistory that require further explanation where they demonstrate a higher level sophistication in ancient times than currently thought possible. On these pages we try to bring a wide selection of these 'anomalies' to our global audience to help develop a far clearer picture of prehistory than we currently enjoy.