We often hear about the prehistoric people who hunted woolly mammoth, but what about those who once hunted hippo? Over the last five years, archaeologists from the University of Cambridge have been busy excavating around the edges of Kenya’s Lake Turkana. During that time, they have amassed an extraordinary collection of bone harpoons, which range in date from 6,000 to 13,000 years old.
Representing nearly 7,000 years of design, the harpoons are as beautiful as they are varied. Some have barbed points, some have been sharpened into elongated spears, and others are more hook-like. They are carved from a range of materials including bone, ivory and horn. Many have been carefully polished and decorated.
What they all have in common is that they were all discovered around the edge of the lake and, says Dr Alex Wilshaw (a Research Associate on the project), were they were probably used for fishing, and would once been attached to a pole using twine or string, allowing the hunter-fishers to spear their prey and then pull in their catch.
Some of the bigger and thicker harpoons may have been used to spear some pretty huge species like Nile Perch, which are native to the area and can grow up to two metres long, says Alex. What’s more, some of them may have been used for hunting hippo, which were also common in the area.
The team hope to establish patterns showing how people may have tweaked their designs and the materials they used depending on their prey, and reveal just how creative people were with their technology. Since some of the harpoons also look as if they have been polished, the team hope that residue analysis may even be able reveal what people were using to care for their tools.
Together, says Alex, the harpoons can provide a spatial and temporal cross-section of prehistoric life in the area, and tell us how hunting technology changed. And by looking at the harpoons in more detail along with other evidence, they hope to find clues about the many different populations who lived by the lake as water levels rose and fell over a period of nearly 10,000 years. We can’t wait to hear more.
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