Archaeologists announced Friday they have discovered the oldest known evidence of bow and arrow use, as well as ancient clothing material just outside of Africa in the tropical regions of Sri Lanka, challenging the traditional methods of investigating early human cultural development.
According to a new study published in the journal Science Advances, scientists have uncovered new evidence suggesting early human occupation of the island of Sri Lanka, seated south of the Indian subcontinent.
This is particularly fascinating as tropical rainforests and other extreme regions are typically looked over for evidence of early human innovation in favor of more temperate environments of Africa and Europe.
Sri Lanka is an exception to this way of thought, for the island exists as a hotspot of homosapien fossils in South Asia. In fact, it provides proof that ancient homosapiens utilized the tropical rainforest environments outside of Africa, effectively disproving the theory that migrating Pleistocene humans had to avoid these regions due to lack of resources.
“This traditional focus has meant that other parts of Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the Americas have often been side-lined in discussions of the origins of material culture, such as novel projectile hunting methods or cultural innovations associated with our species,” said study co-author Patrick Roberts of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
The main question the study’s authors wanted to answer was how humans survived in these environments and more specifically how they competed with the locals for resources. Residents like monkeys and squirrels would have been fierce competitors when it came to food sources.
The study was conducted by an international team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, Griffith University in Australia and Sri Lanka’s Department of Archaeology. They were able to find evidence of the earliest use of bow and arrow technology for hunting outside of Africa, even earlier than the first similar tools discovered in Europe.
The tools are approximately 48,000 years old and show signs of use on the bone arrowheads. Judging by the conditions of the arrowhead, the authors suspect they were used for hunting quick and difficult to catch prey. Moreover, they believe that they might have also been used for making clothing and nets, which is contrary to popular belief that some human innovations were restricted by specific environmental conditions.
The cultural development of Late Pleistocene humans has been best evidenced by detailed cave paintings, bone carvings and tools, and ancient clothing, thought to be vital to their survival in the harsh northern climate as well as population expansion.
On the other hand, bow and arrow technology and symbolic behavior in grassland and coastal settings in Africa have been looked at to understand the savannah and marine environments of the time. In fact, these findings are thought to be essential in regards to hunting and conducting cultural experiments.
Despite the unfortunate overlooking that occurs in these regions, the past 20 years have yielded invaluable information of how Pleistocene humans adapted their ways of life to suit the different environments they encountered in their migration outside Africa. They would have had to endure extreme climates including deserts, high-altitudes and tropical rainforests not unlike Sri Lanka.
The team of scientists began looking at the near perfectly preserved cultural evidence within the cave of Fa-Hien Lena, located deep within Sri Lanka’s wet zone forests. Some of the most astounding finds included both single and double pointed bone tools, which the team suspects would have been used to gather forest resources.
“Fa-Hien Lena has emerged as one of South Asia’s most important archaeological sites since the 1980s, preserving remains of our species, their tools, and their prey in a tropical context,” said co-author Oshan Wedage.
Lead author of the study, Michelle Langley of Griffith University, is an expert in the study of analyzing microscoping traces of tool use as well as symbolic material as it pertains to Pleistocene humans. Upon further inspection of the Fa-Hien Lena material, the researchers’ theory was proved correct.
“The fractures on the points indicate damage through high-powered impact – something usually seen in the use of bow-and-arrow hunting of animals. This evidence is earlier than similar findings in Southeast Asia 32,000 years ago and is currently the earliest clear evidence for bow-and-arrow use beyond the African continent,” Langley said.
Furthermore, after assessing the rest of the bone tools with the same microscopic method, they found implements that suggest use for freshwater fishing in nearby streams, and fiber work for clothing or nets.
“We also found clear evidence for the production of colored beads from mineral ochre and the refined making of shell beads traded from the coast, at a similar age to other ‘social signaling’ materials found in Eurasia and Southeast Asia, roughly 45,000 years ago,” Langley said.
The results of this study further strengthen the argument that no technological, symbolic, or cultural developments in Pleistocene humans can be assumed to have been restricted to any region or environment.
Just as certain clothing would have kept humans warm in cold regions, they would have fended off mosquitos in a tropical environment, and bows and arrows could have taken down not just large grassland mammals, but also tree dwelling primates, said zooarchaeologist Noel Amano.
“The Sri Lankan evidence shows that the invention of bows-and-arrows, clothing, and symbolic signaling occurred multiple times and in multiple different places, including within the tropical rainforests of Asia,” says co-author Michael Petraglia.
“Humans at this time show extraordinary resourcefulness and the ability to exploit a range of new environments,” said co-author Nicole Boivin. “These skills enabled them to colonize nearly all of the planet’s continents by about 10,000 years ago, setting us clearly on the path to being the global species we are today.”