Qesem Cave, occupied between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago continues to amaze and impress me. I’ve written about Qesem cave here and here as a place where many innovations occurred. Recently, 30 stone balls were discovered during excavations by a team of archaeologists led by Ella Assaf from Tel Aviv University. Archaeologists who have been working here since the cave was uncovered during road works in 2000, have found hundreds of thousands of flint tools and animal bones, as well as 13 hominid teeth. Unlike flint tools, though, it is not obvious what function these balls found in Qesem Cave had.
The team of archaeologists which found the balls has a few ideas. They looked through the record for other prehistoric balls of this type which have been found around the world. The earliest known instance of these sorts of stone balls is in Africa 2.6 million years ago in sites associated with Homo erectus. Mary Leakey, the British archaeologist who found them in Tanzania in 1971, suggested that they were used as bolas (weapons consisting of 2 balls connected by a string and thrown to entangle prey). Others after her speculated that they were used as simple projectiles, hammer stones or grinding stones. In the Middle East, these types of stones had been found until now at sites dating between 1.4 million and 500,000 years ago. By the time the balls made it to Qesem, they had already been out of fashion for at least 100,000 years.
When Assaf and her crew started examining the balls closer, they found other mysteries. The Qesem balls were not made of the rock from the cave or the area around the cave. The type of limestone and dolomite from which the balls were formed is not near the cave. They also sport a different patina (wear) than the other stones in the cave showing that they had been exposed to a different environment for a very long time.
Researchers think that these balls, which had been crafted and used earlier, were transported to Qesem cave during the time of the cave’s habitation. But why would someone go to the trouble of transporting 30 balls each weighing around 1 kilogram (2 pounds) from a distance? On further examination, it was seen that the balls were not smooth but rather had carefully crafted ridges. These features were not easy to produce. According to Ella Assaf, “One little mistake and the sphere can break in half, or you can keep fixing the ridges and end up with a very tiny, useless ball.” The ridges also contained organic residues including fat, collagen and bone and showed signs of use.
Changing climatic conditions made life increasingly hard for hominids living in Qesem Cave. We know that at this time the large elephants which formed a large part of their diet became scarce, eventually disappearing. To cope with this challenge, they developed controlled fire to cook the meat of smaller animals every day. But on days when the hunt was not successful, they needed other solutions. Bone marrow was this rainy day food source as it was preserved and stored inside the bones for longer periods of time, only being extracted when needed. In order to get the most nutritional value from the marrow, specialized tools in the form of these reused balls were employed for the task. The ridges were used for breaking open animal bones carefully without damaging the precious spongy marrow.
Qesem balls became part of the Qesem toolkit, even though they were in secondary usage there. It goes to show the intelligence of the hominids who lived there. By reusing the balls, they acknowledged that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you are faced with a challenge.
Oh, wait, the wheel wasn’t invented yet….