What’s in a name? Defining prehistoric weaponry

I have researched Palaeolithic weapons for almost 10 years and (miraculously) I still love writing and talking about them. I’ve written up some basics below on prehistoric weaponry, including some definitions, classifications, and a few archaeological ‘firsts’. But I want to think very briefly first why we need these definitions and classifications.

We use definitions to make our communication simpler but I don’t know whether Palaeolithic hunters would have been overly concerned with our debates about thrusting versus throwing spears, or ‘simple’ versus ‘complex’ projectiles. For one thing we see among contemporary hunter-gatherer groups that these distinctions may not be that meaningful because they often use the same weapon in multiple ways (for example using the same weapon thrown by hand or thrust into prey, depending on the situation).  On the other hand, certain innovations may have had profound implications for successful and reliable hunting, which would have been especially significant in colonising northern regions. Another thing we like to do in weaponry studies is create classifications not just by delivery method or by size and shape, but also in linear stages of simplicity —> complexity. Again, such a classification system might be useful for us as researchers, but for Palaeolithic people, who probably often used multiple systems side by side, these taxonomies can be problematic for how we interpret the archaeological record. I will save an in-depth debate on the utility of and problems with these models for another post, but for now it’s enough to say that these terms are useful, but have their limitations.

Weapon types

Thrusting spear: also called ‘lance’. A weapon with a pointed business end, used as a contact weapon to penetrate prey without leaving the hand. They can be as simple as a shaped wooden stave, have carved barbs, hafted barbs, hafted stone, bone or metal points. The earliest thrusting spear is generally thought to be the Clacton spear point, which is a robust broken fragment of what is understood to have been a much longer weapon. The Clacton spear dates to 400,000 years ago and can be seen in the Natural History Museum. Other candidates for early thrusting spears include ‘Lance VI’ from Schöningen (Germany) dating to around 300,000 years ago, and the Leheringen ‘lance’ (also Germany), dating to around 125,000 years ago. Indirect evidence is in the form of damage to the bones of prey such as those from the Neanderthal site of Neumark-Nord (Germany), and stone points such as those from a site in South Africa with dates as early as 500,000 years ago.

Clacton
The Clacton spear point, dating to around 400,000 years ago. © Annemieke Milks
Me at work
Throwing spear experiments from my PhD (sometimes they break)

Throwing spear: also called ‘javelin’ or ‘hand-thrown spear’. A spear that is eithersingle or double-pointed, and is thrown by hand, without the aid of any mechanical enhancement. Throwing spears are generally heavier than spearthrower darts, but this can vary from fairly lightweight spears such as those thrown by Aboriginal Tasmanians to very heavy spears, such as those thrown by the Tiwi. Like the thrusting spears, they can have many different types of points. Because most of the Schöningen spears (mentioned above) are double pointed, and at least some have their point of balance in the front, they have been suggested to have been designed for throwing. Not everyone agrees on this interpretation of the Schöningen spears, but I have done experimental work with replicas showing that they certainly do fly (coming soon!).

 

Spearthrower: also called ‘atlatl’ and ‘woomera’. A spearthrower is a stick which has a hook or a cup at the end which is held in the hand and used to propel a spear. The spears that are thrown by spearthrowers are usually called ‘darts’, and are often light in weight and fletched. The system works as a lever, which is different from a bow and arrow. The first direct evidence of spearthrowers come from sites in Europe, dating to the middle of the Upper Palaeolithic, around 19,000 years ago (find a great summary of early examples here). Much has been written about the spearthrower by specialists, and you can even take part in competitions! Here’s a list of some articles where you can read more about spearthrowers.

An_Ornately_Carved_Atlatl (1)
A carved spearthrower. Photo by Jennifer R. Trotter CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51976960

 

Bow and arrows: Like a spearthrower, this is a projectile that uses stored energy in the bow to propel an arrow, but in this case the potential energy is created using a spring (the string of the bow). Arrows can be simple pointed wooden shafts, or tipped with any number of materials including bone, stone and metal. The first direct evidence is from Stellmoor in Germany, dating to around 10,000 years ago and was unfortunately destroyed during World War II. But stone points from a site in South Africa may indicate the use of bow and arrows as far back as 71,000 years ago. Here’s an interesting article on innovations in bow and arrow technologies over time.

Stellmoor
Stellmoor arrow fragment. Rust 1943

 

Throwing sticks and boomerangs: Throwing sticks can be straight or curved (which is why they aren’t all ‘boomerangs’). Based on use by recent hunter-gatherers and foragers they are generally thought to be used to kill small prey including rabbits and birds. Thrown by hand, they fly by being spun along the long axis. The earliest straight throwing stick may be one of the many wooden artefacts from Schöningen in Germany, dating to around 300,000 BP. The earliest examples of boomerangs come from the site of Wyrie Swamp in Australia, and date much later, to about 12-10,000 years ago.

Wyrie Swamp
Fragment of a boomerang from Wyrie Swamp, Australia. © Annemieke Milks

 

Weapon delivery systems

Contact weapons, as opposed to ranged weapons, are a significant component of human weaponry. Contact weapons make contact between the person holding the weapon and a target, without letting go of the weapon. They can be intended for penetration or blunt-force trauma. They were often used to dispatch prey that has already been wounded or otherwise disadvantaged, and frequently functioned as melee weapons in collective violence. Contact weapons include:

  • thrusting spears (‘lances’)
  • clubs
  • pikes
  • axes
  • knives

Simple projectile weapons are those that ‘do not involve exosomatic energy storage…launched at targets with unassisted bodily force’ (Shea & Sisk 2010a; Shea & Sisk 2010b). This category includes

  • hand-thrown spears (javelins)
  • throwing sticks and boomerangs

Complex projectile weapons are ‘composite, multi-part tools where human energy is mechanically enhanced or stored by a non-projectile part’ (Shea & Sisk 2010a; Shea & Sisk 2010b) and include:

  • Spearthrowers/darts (atlatl)
  • Bow and arrows
  • Slings

Weapon Manufacture

Composite weapons are those that have multiple parts. For example, a wooden shaft for a spear that is tipped with a stone point, using some sort of binding and/or glue. As opposed to an untipped wooden or ivory spear, such weapons have many components and creating them requires different levels of technological know-how. Spears, darts, and arrows can all be as simple as a shaped piece of wood, or with barbs carved into the wood. Or they can be very complex with hafted stone points, bone or ivory points or barbs, microliths (tiny pieces of stone), metal, and even things such as sting ray spines and shells. 

I will talk in another post about additional methods and materials for hunting including nets, traps, and poisons.

Further reading

Knecht, H. (Ed.). (1997). Projectile Technology. New York: Plenum Press.

Iovita, R., & Sano, K. (Eds.). (2016). Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Stone Age Weaponry (Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology Series). Cham, Switz: Springer.

Cartmill, M. (1993). A view to a death in the morning : hunting and nature through history. Cambridge, Mass. ; London : Harvard University Press.

Thieme, H. (1997). Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature, 385, 807–810.

References

  1. Rust, A. 1943.Die alt- und mittelsteinzeitlichen Funde von Stellmoor. Karl Wachholtz Verlag, Neumünster.
  2. Shea, J. & Sisk, M. 2010a. Complex projectile technology and Homo sapiens dispersal into western Eurasia. PaleoAnthropology, 2010, pp.100-122.
  3. Shea, J. & Sisk, M. 2010b. Letters to the Editor: Defining complex projectile technology: a reply to Whittaker. PaleoAnthropology, 2010, 1.

 

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