Stone Age after the Stone Age: Arctic Bone Harpoon

This is a small Bone Harpoon from the Canadian Arctic, (12 cm long) probably from the early Thule complex.

Barbed bone and antler points have been found in all major regions of the Old World with the exception of Australia. Likewise they occur widely in the New World, absent only in Middle America and the north-western portion of South America. They can be as small as 4 cm and as large as 50 cm and are and were used for different tasks: hunting game (for example at the Maiendorf site) but also for fishing (even in the Sahara during  the early Holocene!). Barbed points may be classified either as “fixed,” when permanently attached to a spear or arrow shaft, or as “harpoons” (sensu strictu) when they separate from a shaft on impact and remain attached to it by line. Barbs ensured that the point stayed embedded in the flesh of the animal once it was harpooned.

The earliest harpoons so far  were found at three archaeological sites at Katanda on the Upper Semliki River (Democratic Republic of Congo). Dating by both direct and indirect means indicate an age of ~90 ka or older.. Such weapons could were obviously used to hunt catfish; those remains were abundant at the site. One exemplar may weight as much as 68 kg (enough to feed 80 people for two days). Because no other barbed points from the MSA have been found, some researchers suggest, that these findings are coming from a disturbed context. Anyhow, published data from the site so far indicate that there are only minor taphonomic disturbances and that the barbed points are not from a later LSA occupation. It remains an enigma, why this invention was not transferred to /or accepted by other foragers.

The earliest well-dated non-African specimens are associated with the 13,5 ka BP Magdalenian levels at Tito Bustillo cave in northern Spain. Unilaterally and bilaterally barbed harpoons are both hallmarks of the upper Magdalenian and often found together. The succession of a “ Magdalenien V” with unilaterally barbed harpoons, followed by a “Magdalenien VI” with bilaterally barbed harpoons is a theoretical construct of the early 20th century and a good example how unreflected evolutionary thinking may bias the data. Unilateral barbed points and harpoons are common in the European Mesolithic.  Such items are very rare in the Natufian; the largest sample, seven specimens, from Kebara Cave, Israel, is dated to ca. 11 ka BP.

During the early Holocene barbed points are common in Africa; It seems that these tools were selctively used for fishing.  African sites wherewith barbed bone points always show an abundance of fish bone, if the fauna is preserved. This is especially evident in sites of the “Khartoum Neolithic”.

It appears that the expansion of aquatic resources in the Holocene made the “green” Sahara attractive to populations with existing fishing and riverine hunting skills. Their ability to hunt hippopotamus and crocodiles and to catch a wide variety of deepwater fish species would have propelled a rapid dispersal from east to west and into the central Sahara, to judge by the numerous branches of Nilo-Saharan in the east. The archeological remains of this “aqualatic complex” are barbed bone points and a fish hook technology.

Our ancestors did not simply drift northward from their African origins as their abilities to cope with cooler climates evolved. After the initial settlement of the lower Eurasian latitudes, they actively moved into the Arctic and the Americas, in relatively rapid bursts of expansion about 15-10 ka BP.

The Inuit have the most complex pre-industrial forms of harpoons ever developed. The primary use of the Inuit harpoon was for hunting sea mammals, both at breathing holes in the sea ice and in open water; although in some arctic areas the harpoon was used for fish as well. The inhabitants of the circumpolar region  used harpoons with fixed foreshafts after 3500 BC . During the Thule complex (after 900-until now), the inhabitants added  loose foreshafts to their repertoire. This may indicate that the earliest inhabitants of the area hunted only at breathing holes and that open water hunting was a later innovation, or it may simply reflect a development from an all-purpose form to specialized harpoons for particular hunting conditions.


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