Unguja (Tanzanie) : Poison-Tipped Arrows at least 13,000 Years Ago
Enrico de Lazaro
A team of archaeologists studying bone artifacts discovered in a cave on the island of Unguja in the Zanzibar archipelago of Tanzania has found evidence to suggest that bone tools were used for hunting, and even as poison arrow tips.
Four of the projectile point fragments recovered from Kuumbi Cave: (A, C and G) impact fractures; (B and D) possible retrieval cut marks; (E) rounded tip; (F) post-depositional fracture revealing bone surface; (H) change in surface appearance. Magnification: A, C, G, and H at 65x; B at 85x; D at 100x; E at 200x. Image credit: Michelle C. Langley et al.
Bone technology was essential to a Stone Age man’s lifestyle and has been shown to have been in use 60,000 years ago.
The majority of the evidence to support this has been found in sites in southern Africa, but now 13,000-year-old artifacts found in a large limestone cave known as Kuumbi show that this technology was being adopted in eastern Africa as well.
The team, led by Dr. Michelle Langley from the Australian National University, investigated a small assemblage of seven bone artifacts — five bone projectile points, a bone awl, and a notched bone tube — recovered from the Kuumbi Cave.
By analyzing the finds with a camera and microscopes, the scientists were able to compare the manufacture techniques and wear to previous discoveries and to attempts to replicate this technology in the lab.
Their findings, published in the journal Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, showed that the bone projectile points are likely to have been used for poison arrows, partly due to the slender and short nature of the arrow heads, and partly supported by a previous discovery of charcoal from the Mkunazi plant, which is known to have poisonous fruit.
The use of poison-tipped arrows by a Stone Age man is thought to have stemmed from a lack of technology and stone-tipped arrows often lack the power to directly kill larger animals, such as zebra or buffalo.
“Examination of Kuumbi Cave’s faunal assemblages provides another useful angle from which to consider how the projectile points found at the site were used,” Dr. Langley and co-authors explained.
“The vertebrate faunal remains include zebra (Equus quagga), buffalo (Syncerus caffer), waterbuck (Kobus defassa), common reedbuck (Redunca redunca), bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus) and bushpig (Potamochoerus larvatus). With the exception of bushpig, these large fauna are not found on Unguja today.”
“With live weights exceeding 40 kg, all these animals are larger than those that it would normally be possible to hunt using the relatively small bone projectiles recovered from the site’s late Pleistocene contexts.”
“Poison may thus have allowed them to be used to hunt the larger prey present at Kuumbi Cave,” the archaeologists said.
Michelle C. Langley et al. 2016. Poison arrows and bone utensils in late Pleistocene eastern Africa: evidence from Kuumbi Cave, Zanzibar. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 51 (2): 155-177; doi: 10.1080/0067270X.2016.1173302