The evolution of bone points as hunting weapons in South Africa

Bradfield, Justin Sean
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The use of formally fashioned bone points as possible components in hunting weaponry has been seen as a marker of behavioural modernity. Unfortunately, their interpretation as hunting weapons, up to now, has been based on morphological analogy with recent hunter-gatherer artefacts. Many studies conducted over the last 30 years have focused on identifying criteria that can be used to establish the function of stone points. There have been no similar macro-fracture studies conducted on bone points thought to have been part of complex weapon systems. This study aims to combine the morphological approach to studying bone points, with macro-fracture analysis. Macro-fracture analysis has been successfully used to discern pointed stone tools that were subjected to longitudinal impact, the most likely cause of which is hunting. This approach was adopted to test whether the same technique is applicable to bone points and whether the bone points that are found in the archaeological record, as far back as c. 77 ka ago at Blombos Cave, were used as hunting weapons. The study involved the replication of a range of bone points that were used in an experiment designed to cause impact consistent with that of hunting scenarios. The experiment tested hand-thrust and mechanically projected bone points. The results of this experiment showed that macro-fractures develop similarly on bone points as on stone points. The morphological study of bone points from one ethnographic collection and eight archaeological assemblages, spanning Middle Stone Age (MSA) and Later Stone Age (LSA) periods, confirmed an earlier observation made in the Cape – that there may be some degree of patterning in the overall dimensions of bone points across the landscape. Furthermore, the study showed that all the bone points from MSA assemblages, with the exception of Blombos Cave, fall within the size range of ethnographic arrow tips. The results of the macro-fracture analysis on archaeological and ethnographic samples suggest that bone points from the MSA levels at Blombos, Peers and Sibudu Caves may have been subject to longitudinal impact and as such could have used for hunting purposes, but whether they functioned as part of spears or arrows remains uncertain.