Woodworking - The Oldest Profession

Since the late 1800’s when the phrase ‘The oldest profession’ is uttered most people think of something other than woodworking.  However, woodworking is actually the oldest known profession of mankind.  How can I make that statement?  Well, let’s take a look at it.

The first evidence of man using metals has been dated to 7,000 BC.  For the 2.5 million years before that mankind’s tool kit was based on stone, bone, shells other animal parts and natural items, the most versatile and important of all was wood.

Homo erectus, a species that lived from about 2.5 million years ago to 70,000 years ago worked wood.  Yes, they were woodworkers.  They figured out how to make spears, they used wood to construct shelters and surprisingly created seaworthy craft.  Aside from those endeavors you had the whole knowledge and industry of fire, which required a deep understanding of wood lore. 

Homo erectus

H. erectus reached islands in the Indonesian archipelago that could not have been reached by any other means because these islands required a minimum of 10 sea crossings of up to 100 km. It was no accident they reached these islands.

“Oceans were never a barrier to the travels of Erectus,” Professor Everett, a linguist at Bentley University, told the science conference in Austin, Texas. 

“They sailed to the island of Crete and various other islands. It was intentional – they needed craft and they needed to take groups of 20 or so at least to get to those places.”

In order to construct shelters, boats and navigate over water they would have needed to be able to communicate with each other with language. 

Professor Everett, “Erectus needed language when they were sailing to the island of Flores (Indonesia). They couldn’t have simply caught a ride on a floating log because then they would have been washed out to sea when they hit the current.”

With each successive evolutionary advance in mankind, brain size enlarged, language blossomed and the woodworking skills became more elaborate and complex. 

The invention of the spear is a milestone in the legacy of human development.  The first spears are what is called thrusting spears.  As the name implies these spears where used to kill prey by being in close physical proximity and thrusting out or stabbing.  They also were used for defense in fighting off attacks from predators. 

neanderthal spearsThe Schoningen Spears

A giant and significant leap forward in spear craft came when man realized he could throw the spear and achieve much greater success in hunting and defense. 

This is the exact story of how that happened.  On a hunting party with three adult Homo erectus males, Jerry, the youngest one, was chasing down a hog with the intention of driving his spear into it for the kill.  The hog being faster was getting away.   Jerry was running for all he was worth but tripped on a stone and stumbled forward.  At the same time he tripped he had been holding his spear in one hand ready to jab out at the hog but when he tripped he let go of the spear and it flew forward as he used both hands to brace himself against the fall.  As luck would have it the released spear flew forward at a high rate of velocity and hit the hog embedding itself into the hog’s flank.  The other two males in the hunting party, Harry and George, ran up to the hog and drove their thrusting spears into it for the kill.

camp fire scene

Later as the entire small hunting and gathering group sat around the fire enjoying pork chops, Jerry recounted over and over again the episode.   “Yeah,” he said, “It was like I was running as fast as I could and just didn’t see the rock and I tripped and man, I, I, I just, you know, I didn’t want to bust up my face and all so I went to put my hands up in front of me and the spear, I mean the spear you know, I just threw it forward, like I was just getting it out of my hand you know, just trying to break my fall and you know it hit the hog and all and then you know, it, I mean then Harry and George got to it and finished it off.”

“Wait,” said Harry, “I finished it off.  George had nothing to do with it.” 

“Yeah, right dude,” said George, “We all know my spear is bigger and stronger than yours.” 

Then general laughter all around the fireside at yet another joke from George, what a character. 

And that is pretty much the story of how early man figured out they could throw spears, not only did that exponentially increase the efficiency of hunting but also greatly increased the survival rate when encountering predators.  After all the ability to inflict pain on a lion or bear at a distance had its advantages.

Once the concept of throwing spears became rooted in the consciousness, the use of throwing spears became the essential hunting and defensive weapon.  The woodworking technology in the creation of throwing spears became more and more refined resulting in a spear craft that produced a very efficient weapon.  

Just like anything else the throwing spear went through a trail and error period that most likely lasted thousands of years.  It finally ended with giving man a javelin type spear that was double ended as far as a tapering to a point goes.

finding the Schoningen spearsUnearthing the Schoningen spears.

The oldest throwing spears that have been unearthed to date are over 340,000 years old.  It doesn’t mean that the art of creating throwing spears started then, it just means that those are the oldest found so far.  There have been throwing spear fragments found dated to 400,000 years ago, so in all probability the throwing spear was in use long before that.

The thing about wood is, it decomposes due the it’s nature and environmental forces acting upon it.  To discover any man-made wood objects hundreds of thousands of years old is remarkable in itself.  The environmental conditions surrounding the wood objects to preserve them has to perfect.  So, the fact that paleoanthropologists could discover complete man-made wood objects 340,000 years old is actually astounding.  

neanderthal throwing spear

The 340,000 year old spears are known as the Schoningen spears.  Named for the area in Germany where the were found in a mine. The pic above is one of the Schoningen spears.  You can see that time has misshaped it through the environmental forces acting upon it.   However, scientists have been able to prove when it was created that is was straight and true.

A replica has been made using the same type of wood and the picture below is what the spears would have looked like as they were first created.  The sharp ends of the spears were fired hardened.

neanderthal spear

Amazingly enough these ancient spears are crafted with the same specifications as modern long-distance throwing javelins.  A test was preformed on the effectiveness of the Schoningen spears by recreating them with the same Norwegian spruce trees as the originals.  Six modern javelin throwers were asked to try them out.  Here are the results.

  1. The ancient spears are the same size and weight as modern javelins, about 7-8 feet long and 760 to 800 g – about 1.8 pounds. So over 340,000 years ago ancient man figured out the best shape, weight and length for throwing spears.

  2. The stiffness of the spears is similar to modern day distance javelins. Stiffness limits vibration in flight making them more aerodynamic and giving them a greater accuracy. 

  3. Just like in modern tournament javelins, the center of gravity is in the front third of the spear due to the bigger diameter of the shaft there. Exam the left side of the spear n the picture above.

  4. During the testing the javelin throwers could throw these ancient replicas with reasonable accuracy and killing power 65 feet (20m).

It’s amazing that using only stone tools ancient man could craft the equivalent of a modern long-distance throwing javelin.   How far back in the history of man did they figure this is out?  Well, we know is was well over 340,000 years ago and with consideration of the fragmentary spear evidence it was most likely well over 400,000 years ago. 

The video above is from the testing.  You can how nicely the wood spear travels through the air and hits the target 70 feet away.

It’s unfortunate that the perishability characteristics of wood make it unlikely that wood crafted tools and other implements would survive down through the ages.  But it is manifestly clear that given the comparisons between the ancient throwing spears and modern javelins that the woodworkers of long-gone hominin species had not only the skill but the brain power to figure out the design and specifications comparable to modern computer designed javelins.

Based on the Schoningen spears there is no telling what other fine woodworking crafts ancient man developed but common sense tells you that if they understood woodworking as well as they did to craft spears as close to modern javelins as they did then there were many other items of woodworking they crafted and used on a regular basis. 

Given the age and location of the Schoningen spears it is assumed they were made by Neanderthals.  Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and Denisovans also lived in Europe at the time so it’s highly likely they also had similar wood technologies.

Woodworking was the most important industry man engaged in for hundreds of thousands of years.  Sure, they had stone tools, used bone and other natural materials too but with wood you have a material that can be shaped far beyond the other materials. Throw in that different types of wood have different properties and you the most versatile and important material early man mastered to increase their chances for survival.   

wood shop

Woodworking and the love of all things made of wood is deeply ingrained in the human psyche.  Behaviors and endeavors engaged in and passed down to us long before the birth of Homo sapiens become part of our DNA.  The invention of throwing spears is just one example of how woodworking was and continues to be an indispensable part of the human experience.



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Kevin Lakins

Excellent article, very readable. Lots of interesting facts. Jerry and his friends are real jokesters. Ha ha

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