We return at last to regular service with a new article by Brian Thomas, Which Came First–the Spear or its Thrower? But first, let us backtrack.
You may remember from October 2012 that Thomas dedicated an article to the Schöningen spears. These are wooden throwing spears found in a coal mine in Germany, and at around 300,000 years old they are commonly billed as the oldest hunting weapons known. Thomas, seeming to believe that they were the oldest tools of any kind, used these artefacts to claim that humans have always had this kind of technology. He said at the time:
If human evolution were true, one would expect to find that the earliest ape-like humans produced clumsy efforts, not the refined tools and artifacts known around the world.
More recently in the news, and the subject of Thomas’ new article, are a set of stone spear tips from Ethiopia which analysis of fractures and other evidence show were also used as throwing weapons. The paper, published in PLOS one in mid-November, says:
Data from velocity-dependent microfracture features, diagnostic damage patterns, and artifact shape reported here indicate that pointed stone artifacts from Ethiopia were used as projectile weapons (in the form of hafted javelin tips) as early as >279,000 years ago. In combination with the existing archaeological, fossil and genetic evidence, these data isolate eastern Africa as a source of modern cultures and biology.
They label their spears as the oldest confirmed projectile weapons, claiming that other finds like Schöningen have only “indirect/circumstantial evidence.” Incidentally, the spearhead Thomas illustrates his article with is a stock photo of “A smooth, chiseled, Native American Indian arrowhead isolated on white,” which needless to say is much better made than the ancient fragments of rock studied in this paper. Above is figure 2D, showing one of the spearheads that looks most like what you might expect.
The typical creationist response seems to have been quite similar to Thomas’ earlier article on the Schöningen spears – they claim that humans have been able to make and use technology like this “since the beginning.” When looking at only specific finds this is an unfalsifiable claim, as it can be made about any artefact of any age. But it ignores the wider pattern of evidence, as if this were true that humans have always had this technology we should see it wherever we look. Stone spearheads preserve much better than most human artefacts, and so post-flood sediments ought to be littered with them – but for some reason we find much more rarely-preserved bones far deeper than we do spearheads.
However, Brian Thomas cannot easily make the same argument about 280,000 year old stone spearheads that he did about 300,000 year old unhafted wooden spears. This would be a bit of a contradiction – as I said, this kind of argument breaks down when you start considering more than one item of evidence at a time, and indeed Thomas doesn’t so much as allude to the Schöningen spears in his new article – but unfortunately for us an alternative route around the pass of Thermopylae presents itself.
The story of these spears has been presented in the popular press as “spears found to be older than the human race!” and two options set up: either modern humans are a hundred thousand or so years older than thought, or – shockingly – it wasn’t humans at all that made them but a close ancestor or cousin. As far as I can tell this latter option is the obvious choice, to the point that the former is not even considered and this is not considered to be an issue at all, as there is no evidence that Homo sapiens is 280,000 years old.
But this false choice gives Brian Thomas an in to attack the science. Thomas, of course, contends that these spearheads are much younger than hundreds of thousands of years – he cites the same kind of flawed attacks on dating methods that we saw last month – and tries to use the dichotomy to discredit the explanation that an earlier member of the human family made the spears. He asks:
First, if some kind of pre-human was smart enough and able enough to manufacture and successfully use these projectiles, then what is left to intellectually distinguish these supposed pre-humans from true humans—descendants of Adam and Noah?
Yes, to Brian Thomas the triumph of human ingenuity is the stone-tipped spear. Not religion, not “circle-shaped jewellery,” not roads, nor even the horse collar, the steam engine, or for that matter the now seemingly lost art of building whole computers and operating systems alone and from scratch – he thinks all that “intellectually distinguish[es] these supposed pre-humans from true humans” is the ability to make a good spear, and that if this difference is taken away then they may as well just be human. But there’s more:
Second, the researchers found microfracture signatures of impact in some of the obsidian spear tips. The PLoS ONE study authors were able to estimate the force with which the spears were thrown from the impact force required to produce tell-tale crack shapes in obsidian. Apes don’t throw spears, and this kind of elegant throwing—the same basic action as pitching a baseball—requires a distinctly human anatomy. What then is left to physically distinguish these ancient spear throwers from being grouped within the category of fully real people?
The ability to throw is something which has come up before, but in this case it’s worth taking a look at what this paper actually says about that subject:
Throwing of composite stone-tipped javelins was one stage in a long process with much deeper evolutionary roots. Roach and colleagues have recently shown that hominins’ ability to throw effectively depends upon a cluster of features in the anatomy of the shoulder, and that this first appeared in H. erectus about 2 million years ago. They argue that throwing – leading to an increase in hunting success – helped to shape the evolutionary trajectory of Homo.
2 million years is much further back than 280,000 – meaning that the anatomical ability to throw a spear is already known to predate these spears – and there’s plenty anatomically to separate Homo sapiens from H. erectus, if mostly in the skull. Our throwing arm is not our defining anatomical characteristic, at least when comparing ourselves with our anscestors. But Thomas is claiming that all you need to be human is to know how to make a spear and throw it. Still, he thinks he has made an important point:
These problems eliminate the idea that the spear makers were somehow human in mind but not body. The other option would require an embarrassing wholesale rewrite of the story of human evolution found in textbooks throughout the world. Fully modern man—as human-like in intelligence and frame as anyone alive today—might have evolved 80,000 years before evolutionary dogma’s 200,000-year mark of man’s supposed emergence.
This is where the choice that isn’t comes in. Thomas points out that radiometric dates can be updated and refined, as if this were a bad thing, and concludes:
These discrepancies open a third option, not mentioned in PLoS ONE or Discovery: Toss out the evolutionary age assignment. One is then left with fully human spear-making hunters who were doing their best to equip themselves after the great Flood and migrated from the ark’s Middle Eastern landing site south to Africa.
Weren’t they all supposed to be migrating from Babel, a city with the technology to build a great tower so high it threatened God Himself? Surely they were able to make better equipment than relatively poorly-crafted stone spears. They are supposed to have had metalsmithing technology, and the Flood would have exposed many fresh deposits ripe for the plundering. Would they really have fallen back to stone? Would anyone?
While we are here, earlier today Adam Benton pointed out that these are not the oldest stone-tipped spears. There exist some speartips from as old as 500,000 years back, but when submitted to the same battery of tests as the younger ones were they were found to be thrusting, and not throwing weapons. These too are not mentioned by Thomas, as they raise the possibility that other migrations from Babel forgot even how to make throwing weapons. Trying to discredit ideas about the accumulation of technology Thomas is forced to contend without basis that it was forgotten or simply not used, which is not a very parsimonious explanation of the evidence.