Test shot with flint
Stone Age humans were not the club-wielding skull-smashers they were once thought to be - much to the chagrin of archaeologists. Because they now have to struggle to analyze the refined murder methods of yesteryear: What traces does a flint arrowhead leave behind? Only the practical test can help.
When Ötzi's famous mummy emerged from the disappearing ice of the Hauslabjoch a good fifteen years ago, one question seemed to fascinate the public and researchers alike: How did the glacier man die? He had starved to death, some suspected, died of exhaustion and disease, others thought, or simply froze to death. It wasn't until X-rays in 2001, when researchers noticed that an arrowhead was stuck in his back, that light shed on the matter. It is now considered quite likely that it was the consequences of this injury that cost the life of the glacier man.
Finally, in 2003, University of Birmingham anthropologist Martin Smith studied lacerations on bone finds from the West Tump burial mound in Gloucestershire, England. Strange marks on one of the skulls also made him think of an arrow wound: something must have penetrated the skull. But there was no suitable tip here - neither in the immediate vicinity nor in the bone itself.
Now it is actually part of the routine of archaeological excavations to examine injuries on the bones for their origin. Characteristic cuts in bones document, for example, where flint knives were used, and sometimes also the seemingly macabre way in which our ancestors treated their deceased: the evidence here ranges from skinning and beheading the dead for cult purposes to occasional cannibalism. Bones of dead animals also serve scientists as a source of information about Stone Age hunting and cooking behavior.
The case with arrow wounds is different, however, Smith found. As with Ötzi, a specific projectile almost always had to be associated with the wound so that archaeologists could identify this in the find reports. Even a comprehensive literature search did not get him any further: Useful medical treatises either referred to modern firearms or dated back to the 19th century – from the time of the American Indian Wars.
So he put it to the test with his colleagues Megan Brickley and Stephany Leach: What exactly does an arrow wound look like, and how can you recognize the mark of a flint point in the bone? With the most authentic possible hunting equipment made of arrows and a longbow made of yew - both of which had been made for them by an expert in the by no means trivial production of such devices - they therefore shot at pig and ox bones. Forensic pathologists advise that their shoulder blades in particular are good substitutes for human skull bones. And just in case the scientists' shooting skills should prove too modest, they arranged a second experiment with a mechanical shooting device in the laboratory.
The researchers found that there are two main characteristics by which an arrow wound can be recognized: In almost all cases, the stone points leave behind microscopically small splinters, even if they have fallen out. And secondly, the penetrated projectile bulges the bones at the exit point, for example inside the skull, outwards. A mostly splintered, sloping wound edge develops. This is exactly what Smith had observed years earlier with the skull of West Tump.
If the arrow slipped off the bones in the experiment, marks appeared which, under the scanning electron microscope, looked confusingly similar to the well-known scratches made with flint knives. It is therefore possible, says Smith, that finds in the past have been misinterpreted. However, he does not doubt the strange death practices of our ancestors: Compared to cuts during the planned skinning and disembowelment, gunshot wounds stand out because of their rather random location.
By the way, Smith is by no means the first to hunt for knowledge with replica bows and arrows. Earlier experimenters mostly aimed at their – as it turned out, quite high – effectiveness and practicability and did not shy away from unusual measures: In the 1980s, the anthropologist George Frison summarily shot his stone-tipped arrows at im because of an obvious lack of living mammoths Dying lying elephants.