For better or for worse (a bit of both I think), ethnographic research and ethnohistoric accounts have played an important role in how we have interpreted the archaeological signatures that people from the past have left behind. This is nowhere more true than the study of how recent hunter-gatherer groups have manufactured, curated, and used weaponry for hunting and violence. Such evidence has featured heavily in understanding changes in weapons and hunting throughout human evolution, though more recently ethnographic sources have been used to form overviews of hunting weapons and strategies, and these have been used in turn to uphold models of large scale change over time.
In this post I want examine one particular aspect of how reference to ethnographic literature has affected how we model hunting and weapons in human evolution. Usually discussions pertaining to hand-throwing spears that refer to the ethnographic record focus on the Tasmanians, who threw relatively light and very long spears by hand. An analysis of various groups who threw spears suggests that the Tasmanians were the only group to throw at significant distances and that overall hand-thrown spears are only effective up to about 8 meters away from prey1. In this post I want to discuss another group of Indigenous Australians – the Tiwi – who are less often featured in arguments about the role of throwing in our deeper past, and also about whom erroneous statements have been made 1,2.
The Tiwi are a group of Indigenous Australians who inhabit the Tiwi Islands on the northern coast of Australia (Figure 1). Together these islands, including the largest two of Melville Island (Yermalner in Tiwi) and Bathurst Island, cover 8,320 square kilometers consisting mainly of open woodlands, savannah, and rainforest and have a tropical monsoonal climate.
The Tiwi were famously resistant to colonization, and unlike the Aboriginal Tasmanians retain total control of their islands to this day. Their spears were clearly lethal weapons: with them the Tiwi provided themselves with terrestrial and marine food resources, solved interpersonal disputes, and lethally wounded would-be colonizers3,4. As someone who researchers early weaponry, I’m interested in their spears for two reasons. First the Tiwi traditionally only used hand-delivered spears, having had no mechanically-projected weapons such as the spearthrower or bow and arrow 5,6. Therefore their skills in spear throwing — both for hunting and for human-human violence — probably best reflect what humans are capable of in the absence of other weapon systems. Second, unlike the Tasmanian weapons, their spears were large and heavy. My doctoral research focused on the earliest spears, including complete examples from the 300,000 year old site of Schöningen in Germany 7,8. These look to have been relatively long and thick, and some have suggested their size and heavy mass would place significant limits on their effectiveness as flight weapons. Therefore the Tiwi spears give us an interesting reference point to try and understand whether there is a weight limit for throwing spears by hand.
Until the arrival of colonizers the Tiwi did not use other materials such as stone or bone to tip weapons9. Instead they used both plain wooden spears and carved barbed spears, with the barbs carved into the wood shaft rather than being attached with hafting materials. Elaborate and painted Tiwi spears were typically used ceremonially, while simpler spears were functional4,10. Although I had read about their unbarbed hunting spears, unfortunately I couldn’t find any examples in the stores of the museums I worked in during my doctoral studies, mainly because museum collections are biased towards more elaborate and colourful objects. So I was thrilled to see an example (Figure 2) on display at the South Australian Museum, confirming their existence. Number 5 in the display case (the darkest spear) is the business end of a Tiwi plain wooden spear.
The Tiwi hunted and fished for many different sizes and types of prey including kangaroo, dugong (Figures 3 and 4), and even saltwater crocodiles, although the anthropologist Jane Goodale, who studied the Tiwi way of life, remarked that the latter were hunted with metal-pronged spears and that it wasn’t clear what was used to hunt crocodiles prior to contact with colonisers.
In the early 1900s the biologist and anthropologist W. Baldwin Spencer, staged a throwing competition in which nine Tiwi men took part 10. Spencer chose the 3.2 meter long spear – which weighed a whopping 1814 grams – because it was average in terms of size and weight. (As a reference point, male Olympic javelins weigh 800 grams, and are between 2.6 and 2.7 metres). This heavy mass is corroborated by another source writing that spears were as long as 4.5 meters and weighed up to 2700 grams 5. The Tiwi managed throws of over 40 meters in Spencer’s ‘experiment’ (Figure 4) although they were not throwing to hit a target. Goodale noted that the Tiwi got as close as possible to prey when hunting with spears, a tactic that would be useful for any weapon in a hunting scenario, because the closer you are the easier it is to hit the prey with a good shot. But another source estimated accuracy distances by the Tiwi – those from which they can hit a target – as being up to about 50 meters 3.
Especially with heavy spears the fitness and skill built over years of learning to throw must have been a significant factor in hunting success. Given the combined sources I’ve discussed in this post, I expect the reality of the accuracy distances of Tiwi spears was probably less than 50 meters, but greater than the proposed limit of 8 meters for hand-thrown spears1. The variation in throwing distance estimates of the Tiwi provides an excellent example of why we need to use ethnographic sources with caution, and read and cite widely wherever possible. The Tiwi provide a fascinating glimpse into the potential for hand-thrown spears, including very heavy ones, to be effective and lethal distance weapons.
- Churchill, S. E. Weapon Technology, Prey Size Selection, and Hunting Methods in Modern Hunter-Gatherers: Implications for Hunting in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association ? 4, 11–24 (1993).
- Churchill, S. E. & Rhodes, J. A. in The Evolution of Hominin Diets (eds. Hublin, J.-J. & Richards, M. P.) 201–210 (Springer, 2009).
- Morris, J. Relationship between the British and the Tiwi in the vicinity of Port Dundas, Melville Island. Historical Society of the Northern Territory (1964).
- Hart, C. W. M. & Pilling, A. R. The Tiwi of North Australia. (Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1960).
- Basedow, H. Notes On The Natives Of Bathurst Island, North Australia. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 43, 291–321 (1913).
- Davidson, D. S. Australian Spear-traits and Their Derivations. The Journal of the Polynesian Society 43, 41–72 (1934).
- Thieme, H. Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 385, 807–810 (1997).
- Schoch, W. H., Bigga, G., Böhner, U., Richter, P. & Terberger, T. New insights on the wooden weapons from the Paleolithic site of Schöningen. Journal of Human Evolution 89, 214–225 (2015).
- Goodale, J. C. Tiwi Wives: a study of the women of Melville Island, North Australia. (Prospect Heights III, 1971).
- Spencer, W. B. Native tribes of the Northern territory of Australia. (Macmillan and Co., 1914).