GERMANS FIND 400,000-YEAR-OLD SPEARS USED TO HUNT BIG GAME.
Researchers in Germany have unearthed 400,000-year-old wooden spears from what appears to be an ancient lakeshore hunting ground - stunning evidence that human ancestors systematically hunted big game much earlier than believed.
The three spears, each carved from the trunk of a spruce tree, are 6 feet to more than 7 feet long. They were found with more than 10,000 animal bones, mostly from horses, including many obviously butchered.
That indicates the ancient hunters were organized enough to trap horses and strong enough to kill them by throwing spears, perhaps ambushing herds that showed up for water.
``There's no question if you are hunting a group of horses coming along a lake, you must be strong. You have to plan it. You have to organize it,'' said archeologist Hartmut Thieme, whose crew made the discovery.
The spears, found as researchers worked one step ahead of an expanding coal mine, skewer the idea that humans at that time depended on scavenging and foraging, experts said.
``What it's telling us is these people were very sophisticated, competent hunters,'' said Robin Dennell, a professor of prehistory at the University of Sheffield in England. ``They were perfectly capable of long-term planning and foresight.''
And ``they must have been awfully strong, far stronger than I am. Those spears are longer than I am.''
Before the new find, there had been some evidence of systematic hunting about 200,000 years ago. The spears are twice that old. In addition, some researchers have argued that such hunting didn't truly begin until about 40,000 years ago.
Thieme, who works for the state of Lower Saxony in Germany, reported his crew's discoveries last week in the journal Nature. He and colleagues had found the spears in 1995 near Schoeningen, about 60 miles southeast of Hanover. Since the Nature paper was written, his crew has come across pieces of a fourth spear.
The spears were obviously made with care. After chopping down an appropriate tree and stripping off the bark and branches, the ancient hunters carved the tip at the base of the trunk, where the wood is hardest.
The spears were shaped to be thickest toward the front with a long tapering tail, like modern javelins, which suggests they were meant for throwing rather than jabbing.
After all that work ``they're not going to throw it at a squirrel in a dark night,'' said Dennell, who wrote a Nature commentary on the spears. ``These people were serious about hunting.''
Frank Herrold, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, said the spears will have to be studied further to establish that they were really meant to be thrown.
The hunters, called archaic Homo sapiens or Homo heidelbergensis, were distant ancestors of Neanderthals. They hunted in a cool climate like that of central Norway today. They sought game in a landscape of large meadows with spruce and birch trees.
A few of their spears were preserved over the eons because they were waterlogged, a rare stroke of luck, noted F. Clark Howell, emeritus professor of paleoanthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.
``This finding demonstrates what a few people have guessed at . . . - that we're dealing with a hunting people, that hunting is an important part of their lives,'' he said.
Photo: A researcher brushes off a wooden spear that was found near Hanover, Germany, in 1995 and has since been labeled 400,000 years old.