Oldest Known Bow And Arrow Weapons Found Outside Africa Discovered in Sri Lankan Cave

Tools made from bone and teeth of monkeys and smaller mammals recovered from Fa-Hien Lena, Sri Lanka. This technology included small bone arrow points, and skin or plant-working tools. Image: M. C. Langley

The earliest human inhabitants of Asia’s tropical rainforests were packing some serious heat, according to a new study in the journal Science Advances, which describes the discovery of 130 arrowheads dating back 48,000 years. Found in a cave in Sri Lanka, the bone projectiles are the oldest weapons of their kind to be found outside of Africa and were accompanied by other tools that were probably used to make clothing, indicating an unexpectedly sophisticated material culture during a critical period of mankind’s global migration.

Sri Lanka’s Fa-Hien Lena cave is something of an anthropological treasure trove, having yielded tools and artifacts from four distinct stages of occupation. Among these are the earliest Homo sapien fossils in South Asia, indicating man’s presence in the heavily jungled area some 48,000 years ago. After analyzing some of the relics discovered here, a team of researchers has now determined that these ancient occupants were probably hunting game using bows and arrows, with the arrowheads made predominantly of monkey bones.

The 130 projectile points all display dents, scratches, and other impact marks that are consistent with hunting damage. While the earliest of these tools are thought to have been used to target monkeys, the fact that the arrowheads increased in length over time suggests that later generations must have been hunting larger animals such as pigs and deer.

Other notches on the bone weapons suggest they were probably attached to thin shafts, although their size and weight rules out the possibility they could have been fired from blowguns, suggesting they were most likely used like bows and arrows.

Tools made on bone and teeth were used to hunt small monkeys and squirrels, work skins or plants, and perhaps create nets at Fa-Hien Lena, Sri Lanka 48,000-years-ago. Here a possible net shuttle, monkey tooth awl/knife, and projectile point are shown. Image: M.C. Langley

Prior to this discovery, the earliest evidence for high-velocity projectile weaponry in South Asia came from Sarawak in Borneo, where arrowheads thought to be around 32,000 years old have been discovered. The authors of this new study explain that the projectiles found at Fa-Hien Lena are remarkably similar to these younger artifacts, with the main difference being that the tools found in Sarawak were made from the bones of larger mammals.

The researchers also describe the discovery of numerous tools that would once have been used to work animal skins and plant fibers in order to make clothing. Given the warm temperatures in tropical forests, it is unlikely that ancient humans living in the area would have needed to wear skins to keep warm, so the authors hypothesize that they may have covered themselves as a form of protection against disease-carrying insects.

Other items found at Fa-Hien Lena include decorative beads and sea shells, which are likely to have been traded as a form of currency. The presence of marine artifacts is particularly interesting, as it indicates an established trade network linking inland forest dwellers to coastal populations.

Taken together, the various relics found at Fa-Hien Lena paint a detailed picture of the technological and social sophistication of the earliest humans to inhabit South Asia’s jungles, revealing the means by which they were able to survive and thrive in this challenging environment.

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