The First List: From Throwing to Chronology

French hand axe, possibly from 500,000 BC.

In the previous post, we looked at the earliest examples of organized information.  These are primarily bone or antler artifacts with small slashes often incised over a period of time, indicating a chronologic list.  Why would our first attempts at organized information be chronologic?  Surprisingly the answer may involve our ability to throw.

I first started thinking about this after finding the work of neurophysiologist William H. Calvin, who theorized that our advanced throwing arm improved our hunting skills which in turn increased cognition.  He believes throwing at moving targets enhanced our ability to plan, thus leading to modern mental capabilities.

To bolster his argument, Calvin suggested that the ubiquitous prehistoric hand axes were actually throwing devices.  These hand axes were built and used by early humans and pre-humans for millions of years in Africa.  As hominins migrated to Europe, Asia and the Americas, they brought their flint knapping skills with them, always improving the technology, as hominins like to do.  The palm-sized tools tend to be symmetrical, narrow at the top, wide at the base, with a very sharp edge all around.

“Three wooden spears like this one were found at Schöningen, Germany.”

Several tests found the hand axes to be aerodynamic.  Calvin suggested hominins threw them into a herd of mammals, not to kill but to surprise the one that got hit.  The victim and the herd would then bolt, dispersing the animals.  In all the commotion, one of the prey might trip and that would be the one the hominins ate for dinner.

Unfortunately, Calvin was wrong about that.  The most thorough analysis of hand axes indicates they were used for butchering, not throwing.  John Mitchell, an associate of Mark Roberts at the Boxgrove site in England, had a professional butcher, Peter Dawson of Oxford, use several hand axes on a deer carcass.  Apparently if you know what you’re doing, they work great.  As Roberts stated in his book with Michael Pitts, Fairweather Eden, “Any aerodynamic properties . . . are simply incidental” (2000, p. 289).

Just because Calvin was wrong about hand axes, doesn’t mean he was wrong about brain development or throwing.  Spears from 400,000 BC were discovered by Hartmut Thieme at a site in Schoeningen, Germany.  They are made from spruce tree trunks where the hardest part is at the base of the tree.  That hardness forms the point of the spear.  The weight of the projectile is heaviest about a third of the way up the shaft, just like a modern competition javelin

As usual, these spears are controversial in terms of the date of the artifacts, the effective penetration of the projectile, and the physiological ability of pre-humans to throw.  That lack of throwing ability was challenged by a June, 2013 study in Nature.  Researchers had Harvard baseball players throw while wearing braces that replicated the mechanics of the pre-human arm and shoulder.  Their results suggest that hominins could throw accurately much earlier than previously believed.

Model of pierced Boxgrove horse scapula.

The Boxgrove site is 100,000 years older than Schoeningen.  Roberts’ team didn’t find any wooden spears.  But they do have a scapula from a butchered horse with a round hole that seems to have been made by a projectile.  Forensic analysis indicates the spear was propelled with a throwing device that allowed a hominin to throw faster, farther, and harder.  This is a preliminary finding and is controversial considering that some researchers don’t believe pre-humans could even throw, let alone build a throwing device.  For now, Pitts and Roberts make this comment about the hole in the scapula, “We are not saying that it was made by a spear thrown by Man. . . . We are saying that at the moment we cannot think of any other explanation” (2000, p. 267).

So Calvin may have it right about our ability to plan a throw possibly leading to improved cognition.  But there’s more from Boxgrove about planning skills.  The researchers there, including Francis Wenban-Smith and Phil Harding, made stone hand axes themselves and discovered it’s not so easy.  Today’s Boxgrove flint knappers say it’s similar to playing chess.  You have to plan ahead five or six steps, “if you follow the path of least resistance, you will remove parts of your axe” (Pitts & Roberts, 2000, p. 298).

The artifacts at Boxgrove are from half a million years ago.  The chronologic bones and antlers of the Upper Paleolithic are only from 10,000 to 30,000 BC, plenty of time to learn how to plan.  It’s no wonder when humans were ready to leave the archaic and move on to the future, they built a chronologic planning tool.


Michael Pitts and Mark Roberts (2000).  Fairweather Eden: Life Half a Million Years Ago as Revealed by the Excavations at Boxgrove.  New York:  Fromm International.


French hand axe, possibly from 500,000 BC.   Wikimedia Commons.

“Three wooden spears like this one were found at Schöningen, Germany.”   Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.

Model of pierced Boxgrove horse scapula.  James Di Loreto & Donald H. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution.

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Jul 2013

The First List: A Prehistoric Chronology

Taï Plaque

I have been hanging out in the Paleolithic trying to find the earliest example of organized information.  So far, that seems to be incised artifacts from around the time of prehistoric cave paintings, a highly creative era for Homo sapiens.  These possible recording devices, from as early as 30,000 BC, tend to be sections of bone or antler with slashes or other types of repetitive marks that look like an early form of a list.  In fact, when they were first discovered in mid-19th Century France by Édouard Lartet, they were called marques de chasse, or hunting lists, like notches on a gunslinger’s weapon.

Engraved ochre from the Blombos Cave in South Africa

These engraved lists are not the earliest use of incised marks.  That honor belongs to an ochre from 78,000 BC found at Blombos Cave in South Africa.  Here the slashes seem like decoration, a design engraved because it looks nice.  It’s worth noting that the design has a repetitive symmetrical quality that may have influenced list makers 48,000 years later.  That first list was a long time coming.

In the second half of the 20th Century, Alexander Marshack, a NASA journalist turned archaeologist, innovated the use of microscopic analysis on prehistoric artifacts.  His most famous example, the Blanchard Bone (actually an antler) from about 28,000 BC, has circular marks reminiscent of the moon.  Using the microscope, Marshack (1991a) compared the Blanchard Bone and other possible lists to a lunar model he developed for the purpose.  He discovered that groups of marks on many artifacts tend to change with the moon’s cycle, particularly around the time of the dark of the moon.  So he designated these artifacts as lunar calendars.  The idea is controversial, although otherwise well researched documents accept without criticism the hunting list explanation, which is little more than a wild guess (see for example Hoffecker, 2011, p. 133).

One critic (Littauer, 1974, p. 327) included her own suggestions on how the incisions should have been arranged, “(W)hy could not these have been easily made clearer by the insertion of a gap or a vertical indicating the beginning of a new set?” Apparently this researcher didn’t realize she is the product of 32,000 years of information organization.  The prehistoric engravers invented the recording of meaningful permanent marks.  They also invented the list.  The idea of a gap between sets hadn’t yet occurred to them.  That didn’t catch on for Latin word spacing until the 7thCentury AD.

Blanchard Bone

As a specialist in information organization, I find Marshack’s (1991b) discussion of the Taï Plaque, a French bone from 10,000 BC, to be the most compelling.  Although relatively recent among prehistoric engravings, this bone was incised 2,000 years before the formation of Lake Michigan.

The notches on the Taï Plaque run in parallel lines with enough daily marks to complete 3.5 years, compared with 2.25 months for the Blanchard Bone.  The engraved Taï Plaque fits into Marshack’s lunar model quite nicely; he even includes the solstice in this one.

It’s such a good fit that I believe the Taï Plaque has something to do with the moon.  However, I’m not sure if it’s a calendar or a device for recording daily events that tend to coincide with the moon.  It may be that the dark of the moon is simply a time to catch up on record keeping.

The marks on these artifacts are incised in groups, which seems to imply chronological entry or the ongoing recording of something that has already happened, perhaps even the non-lunar products of consecutive mammoth expeditions.  It could be that some artifacts are lunar calendars, some are marques de chasse, and some are anything else that needed to be recorded.

Alexander Marshack's drawing of the Taï Plaque

Lunar or not, the Taï Plaque is clearly a list.  Two of the parallel lines are incised to the very edge of the bone and then take a 90° turn so the list continues along the edge.  Did you ever do that?  On a postcard perhaps?  Not quite enough room so you write along the edge.

Marshack believed this marking along the edge was done so the solstice could be included within a line of marks.  In order for the lunar/solar explanation to work, the parallel lines would have been incised with the baustrophedon technique.  That means you read right to left on one line and left to right on the next, continuing back and forth.  It’s a method seen as late as the early alphabet.  Once spelling gets involved, the various languages tend to settle each into their own direction.  But it works quite well if all you’ve got is notches.

With the Taï Plaque, and others like it, we clearly see that the first instances of recorded  information were lists.  If Alexander Marshack was correct and these lists represent lunar notation, then the first instances of recorded information were organized structures, lists in chronological order.  Based on the concept of grouped incisions, even if Édouard Lartet was correct and the engravings recorded hunting statistics, they’re still lists in chronological order.


Hoffecker, John F. (2011). Landscape of the Mind: Human Evolution and the Archaeology of Thought.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Littauer, Mary Aiken; F. D. McCarthy & Alexander Marshack (1974).  On Upper Paleolithic Engraving, Current Anthropology, 15(3), 327-332.

Marshack, Alexander (1991a).  The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation. (Revised and expanded).  Mount Kisco, NY: Moyer Bell Ltd.

Marshack, Alexander (1991b). The Taï Plaque and Calendrical Notation in the Upper Palaeolithic, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 1(1), 25-61.


Both Taï Plaques:

Blombos ochre:

Blanchard Bone:

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Jul 2013