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B325: Which bone for the harpoon? Exploring decision-making in complex hunter-gatherers using ancient proteins (Lead Supervisor: Marta Mirazón Lahr, Biological Anthropology)

Supervisors: Marta Mirazón Lahr (Biological Anthropology) and Eske Willerslev (Zoology)

Importance of the area of research:

Hunting-gathering was the universal lifestyle of all human societies until the recent past. In many parts of the world, the range of economic strategies diversified, including fishing specialisations. Greater dependence on fish would have been both a response to environmental change at the end of the Pleistocene and increased demography, and also had consequences in terms of levels of sedentism and mobility. Such major ecological shifts among hunter-gatherers, occurring parallel to a shift to agriculture in other parts of the world, are critical for understanding the history of major economic transitions. This project uses the iconic African bone harpoon of the early Holocene hunter-fisher traditions of East and North Africa, as a means of exploring human adaptations by the hunting and fishing societies that exploited the rich shores of Lake Turkana 10,000 years ago, representing a pioneering use of ancient molecules to study the human ecological past.

Project summary:

Using ancient proteins, more resistant to degradation than DNA in hot climates, the project will identify the range of species selected as raw materials for the manufacture of barbed bone harpoons by prehistoric hunter-fishers of East Africa 10,000 years ago. The range of species used will throw light on the ecological and social conditions under which populations became tethered to the lakeshore. Lastly, the project will use residue analyses to explore the use of the harpoons, and investigate possible correlations between their complexity in shape, decoration and size, recorded through 3-dimensional scans, and their function. 

What the student will do:

The student will sample the large collection of early Holocene bone harpoons from West Turkana made through the IN-AFRICA Project (>300 harpoons)1 for extraction of ancient proteins. These will be used to identify the animal taxa2,3, to highest taxonomic level possible, chosen by prehistoric hunter-fishers as raw material to make the tools. The shape, size and other attributes of the harpoons, such as decoration, number and type of barbs, will be recorded through 3D surface scans, and their functionality investigated through analyses of residues, including poisons, that may be preserved on the used surfaces. The presence of residues on the string notch will also be tested to inform on the range of mastics that were used. The data on species identity will be used to explore ranging patterns, while correlations with the techno-typology and use of the artefacts will be investigated to infer aspects of decision-making in the past.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


1 Mirazón Lahr, M. and Wilshaw, A. 2016. Harpoons of West Turkana. London: OpenPress.

2 Ostrom, P. H. et al. 2000. New strategies for characterizing ancient proteins using matrix-assised laser desorption ionization mass spectrometry. Geochimica et Cosmochimimca Acta, 64, pp. 1043–1050.

3 Cappellini, E. et al. 2012. Proteomic analysis of a Pleistocene Mammoth femur reveals more than one hundred ancient bone proteins. J. Proteome Res., 11, pp. 917–926.

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project



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