45,000-year-old Arrows in Sri Lanka Show How We Conquered the World

Early modern humans adapted to life in the South Asian rainforests where nary another hominin ventured to tread, which may help explain why Neanderthals went extinct

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Inside Fa-Hien Lena Cave in Sri Lanka
Inside Fa-Hien Lena Cave in Sri Lanka, where humans lived in rainforest conditions 45-48,000 years agoCredit: Maduka Jayalath
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Killing remotely with bow and arrow is more cutting-edge than chasing and stabbing prey animals with spears or bashing their heads with rocks. Projectile technology and complex symbolism are among the innovations that have been traditionally argued to distinguish Homo sapiens from brethren species that went extinct, including the Neanderthals. The discovery of bows and arrows that may be as old as 48,000 years on the island of Sri Lanka could attest that the technology arose more than once in human history. They may also bear witness to human invention and adaptability that would be key to our triumph.

We cannot by definition say when the bow and arrow were invented. The earliest found so far were in South Africa, and were between 70,000 to 61,000 years old. Since we are unlikely to have chanced on the very first one ever made, projectile technology evidently arose earlier – and definitely in Africa, the crucible of modern human evolution.

Now, bow and arrow technology have been found in Sri Lanka, off the southern coast of India – dating to 48,000 to 45,000 years ago – by an international team from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany, the Department of Archaeology of the Government of Sri Lanka and Australia’s Griffith University, as reported in Science Advances.

The evidence from Fa-Hien Lena Cave – bone points that bear high-velocity impact fractures – indicates the oldest known bow and arrow technology found outside Africa. This evidence is more than double the age of the oldest certain known bow and arrow in Europe, which were about 17,000 years old and had been found in Mannheim-Vogelstang, Germany. (Not all agree that the fragments in Germany even were a bow and arrow.)

Possible net shuttle, monkey tooth awl/knife, and arrow point are shown, Fa-Hien Lena Cave in Sri Lanka, 45-48,000yaCredit: M. C. Langley

Exit from Africa

So, we have bows and arrows used in South Africa about, say, 70,000 years ago and in Sri Lanka some 48,000 years ago. The Sri Lankan arrows are bone tips that show the kind of fracturing typical of hitting an animal at high velocity, explains Michelle Langley of Griffith University, the lead author of the new study.

We are certain that ancestors of today’s people left Africa at least 50,000 years ago and more likely around 75,000 years ago, spreading through the Middle East to Eurasia, where they quickly met and mixed with Neanderthals and, a bit later, Denisovans as well. (Neanderthals lived in western Eurasia and Denisovans in the east, with some area of overlap.)

If modern humans were using bows and arrows separately in the grasslands of South Africa 64,000 years ago and in the rainforests of Sri Lanka 48,000 years ago, they seemingly had the flexible capacity to occupy new environments in novel and savvy manners, independently innovating and adapting their technological repertoire. A recent study based on supercomputer simulations also supports the theory that we mortally outsmarted them. 

Also supporting the postulation of superior adaptability by sapiens is evidence suggesting that bows and arrows in Africa were used to hunt medium and big animals. In Sri Lanka, meanwhile, evidence on the preserved bone arrowheads indicates they were used for hunting small game such as monkeys and squirrels. That is some flexibility.

No evidence has been found suggesting Neanderthals had bows and arrows. They did have spears and spear-throwers; even bonobos can make spears. It had been thought that Neanderthals only used spears to stab, while clever Homo sapiens developed lighter spears to throw. Then a study published in 2018 on spears previously found in Schöningen, Germany, from 300,000 years ago suggests the Neanderthals could have thrown their spears too. (The Schöningen spears were heavy but athletes could nail an animal at a 20-meter – 65-foot – distance, the study explained.)

But bows and arrows were a whole other phase in the evolution of distance killing, requiring a higher level of cognitive functioning and abstract thinking, some argue.

In the middle of the Sri Lankan rainforest: Humans lived in Fa-Hien Lena Cave atop the hill 45-48,000 years agoCredit: Maduka Jayalath

In fact, there is an interesting, if currently completely unproven, theory that one of the Neanderthals found in Shanidar Cave in Iraq  had been shot by a Homo sapiens with an arrow. The Neanderthal exhibited what seems more like a projectile point injury than a stab wound in the ninth rib. 

Homo sapiens ascendant

Back in prehistoric Sri Lanka, another argument for the superior flexibility of sapiens is that these ones were living in the rainforest – an inhospitable habitat thought to have been avoided by hominins as they expanded their geographical ranges throughout the Pleistocene.

Broadly, the traditional model of human evolution has evolved around the idea that hominins gradually left the treetops and started striding on the savannas of Africa, Patrick Roberts of Max Planck explains to Haaretz. Then, alongside roaming grasslands, we also began to mosey along the warm, breezy African coasts, where the earliest evidence of so-called modern human sites is generally found.

For one thing, this focus plays along with our own stereotypes of Western environmental determinism, Roberts says. “In the 1980s, anthropologists were saying that humans living in rainforests can only live there because they’re near agricultural populations. This was rapidly disputed but, as ever, archaeology picks things up very late. Indeed, many paleoanthropologists and archaeologists still think of rainforests as barriers to the movement of early members of our species.”

Bone arrow points, and skin or plant-working tools made of animal bones and teethCredit: M. C. Langley

For another thing, archaeological organic evidence of early humans such as tools made of bone often do not survive rainforest conditions, hindering investigation. Yet remarkable preservation in cool cave settings have now demonstrated that people were living in the prehistoric Sri Lankan rainforest, which boasts the earliest modern human fossils found in South Asia, and also some of the earliest human fossils in a definite rainforest context anywhere. The Niah Caves in Sarawak, Malaysia, also indicate human habitation in the rainforest about 45,000 years ago. By contrast, there is no certain evidence for the specialized occupation of rainforests by any other hominins.

Indeed, as Roberts says, “The smoking gun in terms of seeing how our species is unique within the hominin clade is that it is the only one that inhabited all the continents, the only species found in rainforests, in deserts, in a high-altitude environment, even possibly in the Paleoarctic. No other hominin species have been found there,” he says, adding that Denisovans did also live in the Tibetan heights.

In testing this hypothesis, Roberts suggests it is crucial to look for where the earliest fossils or material culture evidence for a given behavior are found, not simply when.

Thus, the big picture of sapiens prevailing is that they could adapt faster and better. Or, given the plethora of recent information on Neanderthal capabilities – including an ability to utilize marine resources, produce art and complex technologies – a complementary way to look at things is that our species does complex things more frequently than the Neanderthals did, which could have helped us conquer and thrive in different ecological contexts.

Which leads us back to the invention of the bow and arrow. Plausibly by the time modern humans were leaving Africa, they had unique innate capacities (among the Homo clade) that enabled the independent invention of projectile technology by separate populations, which was then used in different ways in the different environments.

“Instead of a single invention that spread quickly, we more likely had human populations that could do these things and adapt them to different contexts,” Roberts says. “The bow and arrow could have arisen multiple times. … Bows and arrows had been associated with the open grasslands of Europe and Africa, and now we’re finding it in the rainforest in southern Asia. That is a pretty major overturning. Rainforests are being shown to be crucial to what it means to be human.”

Some of the symbolic artifacts recovered from Fa-Hien Lena: shell beads and pigments in red, yellow, and silver, used to decorate bodies or itemsCredit: M. C. Langley

Say it with shell beads

Additional discoveries at the Fa-Hien Lena Cave (aka Pahiyangala) of Sri Lanka include “symbolic evidence” – namely beads made of ochre, freshwater shells – and seashells.

Fa-Hien isn’t by the sea, and previous isotopic analysis of teeth found the cave-dwellers lived in the rainforest all year round. The seashell beads may therefore indicate a trading relationship with other early modern humans on the coast, Roberts suggests. “That is the most parsimonious answer: they were communicating with coastal groups,” he tells Haaretz. In other words, there was a complex, early human social network in the South Asian tropics.

Furthermore, the researchers discovered that certain bone tools may have been used for making nets or clothing. If they were making clothes, given the tropical setting, that would dramatically alter traditional assumptions about how certain human innovations were linked with specific environmental requirements, the team says. They may have covered up not because of cold (it wasn’t) or modesty (who knows?), but mosquitoes. Or maybe they were making nets to fish or catch small animals.

Neanderthals apparently mastered the art of three-ply cording – and if they could make string, archaeologists posit that they could weave too. Whether they did or not, we do not know. Archaeological evidence of prehistoric textile is inevitably less than direct. The evidence at Fa-Hien was awls and scrapers, also made from bones. “In most Pleistocene sites, such tool types are associated with working fibers or hides,” Roberts explains. “We link that either to use of clothing or other fiber constructs.”

The oldest-known actual textile is flax fiber made and dyed between 36,000 to 30,000 years ago by modern humans, found in Dzudzuana Cave in Georgia, Eastern Europe.

A last word on nifty Neanderthals: Maybe higher capabilities associated with certain cases, such as Châtelperronian-style stone tools in France, were actually the product of Neanderthal-human hybrids? We know we mixed, possibly over thousands of years. Or maybe the incoming humans taught the locals some tricks? Perhaps. The jury’s out.

But other hominins in the jungles there were not, it seems, and it is only in the last two decades that archaeologists have begun to intensively comb the jungle for evidence of early humans, so at the moment our picture is fragmented. The evidence found so far is the tip of the iceberg, Roberts happily predicts, and meanwhile the discoveries in Sri Lanka have been overturning a lot of stereotypes – such as that early humans eschewed the rainforest. Or that complex things were created once, in a grassland or coastal environment. It seems technologies arose here and there, were used in different ways in different contexts. A bow and arrow may have been perfect to impale an impala in Africa and independently developed to skewer squirrels in Sri Lanka, and thusly we conquered the world. Such is human nature.

Ochre and shell beads found in the 48,000-year-old site of Fa-Hien Lena located in the rainforests of Sri Lanka.Credit: M. C. Langley

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