Experimental archaeology has run as a thread throughout my postgraduate studies, and I’ve conducted a number of different types of experiments on Pleistocene hunting weapons. Something that was clear early on in designing my experiments is that we have a present-day skills shortage in terms of how humans used early hunting spears.
Once upon a time I was a professional violinist, and it always amused (read: annoyed) me when people assumed that being in a professional orchestra wasn’t that difficult. Typically it would be a middle-aged businessman joking at a post-concert dinner, but it also often arises in public commentary regarding orchestras on strike. I started violin at age 4, and practiced and rehearsed most days, building up to 3 to 5 hours per day during my teenage years, and significantly more at university. I probably under-practiced compared to many of my peers. Those years of study didn’t just involve technical proficiency but also performance experience, theoretical and historical underpinnings, listening to recordings, going to concerts, and much more – in other words technical skill was a big component, but it was also highly socially and culturally conditioned. I know this isn’t relatable to Palaeolithic technologies, but I think having had a job that was founded in two decades of investment in embodied skill and experience made me approach experimental archaeological replication studies with a dose of skepticism.
We design research to create new data, but we also re-search what others have said to understand foundations of theories and models. My first ‘whhaaaat?’ moment doing my own first original research project was about the estimates for hand-thrown spear velocities. I was trying to replicate Gravettian tanged points as hand-delivered spear points and needed good velocity data. What were the estimates based on? It turns out they were mostly based on archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists throwing stuff.
For example, Calvin Howard conducted an experiment (Howard, 1974) to evaluate spearthrower (atlatl) performance. In that context spearthrower darts were also thrown by hand, which were then used to estimate throwing velocities of hand-thrown spears/javelins (Hughes, 1998). But…who did the throwing? According to Howard, ‘Thrower “A” is the writer and thrower “B” is his 18 year old son.’ And this is just one example! Many other studies involve students and authors as spear thrusters and throwers. Steven Churchill (1993) admits that our understanding of hand-delivered spears is based on unskilled use:
“There is very little mention of the accuracy of this weapon in the ethnographic literature, although there is ample evidence from experimental research that it is an inaccurate weapon in the hands of anthropologists.”
Ethnographic literature shows that in spear-using societies, use-training began early in childhood and formed a significant part of the ‘education’ of male children (Bourke, 1890; Davies, 1846; Hart & Pilling, 1960), something also seen in societies using bow/arrows for hunting (Figure 1). Amongst the Chabu in Ethiopia, children learn to use spears as young as 6 years old through play and direct experience (Dira & Hewlett, 2016). Neurological studies show us that important developments in relation to fine motor skills need to take place in childhood (which is why you can’t just pick up classical instruments in your late teens and head for a professional path). You must lay down foundational sensorimotor coordination throughout childhood.
Do studies based on use by researchers whose work and skills are primarily desk-based, and who have relatively little if any experience using spears, let alone equivalent decades of motor skills and experience actually tell us much? I would argue that even a few months of throwing practice does not begin to approximate years of socially embedded work-themed play and learning.
The Replicator’s Conceit
Still, too often we are seeing research where authors themselves replicate spears without discussion as to their training (or lack thereof) or any external validation of skill level, and rarely with an acknowledgement that their skill may be limited in comparison with humans who subsist(ed) through hunting with traditional weapons. I’m a small person with no weapon training and a history of shoulder injuries and yet I am frequently asked by archaeologists whether I participate in my own experiments. What would that tell us? That a small, injury-prone, unskilled person doesn’t throw very well.
I don’t think we see this kind of conceit as often in relation to prehistoric skills that are replicated more frequently than spear use. A Bronze Age sword replicator recently commented in the Must Farm documentary that although he’s the best there is, his replicas aren’t a match for Bronze Age craftspeople. Stone tool knappers also often explore the implications of their limitations:
“…we cannot determine how challenging or difficult producing a stone-tool type or using a particular production technique would have been to a prehistoric knapper, who, unlike modern knappers, may have spent his or her life making and using stone tools, may have started learning at a much different (likely younger) age, and may have been surrounded by teachers or peers who had already learned the “trick” necessary to achieve production success…Thus, caution and restraint should be exercised when it comes to specific proposals about a prehistoric person’s stone-tool production learning trajectory, perception, specialization, or skill mastery.” – Eren et al., 2016
Perhaps one reason behind this difference is that replicators of objects can visually analyse how their work compares with artefacts, whereas use is harder to ‘see’.
Later prehistoric weapon studies, such as those on spearthrowers, are also having interesting discussions about the significance of training, age, physique, gender, and weapon design in relation to performance (Whittaker & Kamp, 2006; Whittaker, Pettigrew, & Grohsmeyer, 2017). We must think carefully about estimates of spears based on unskilled or limited skill use, and what this might mean about current models about the evolution of human hunting. I worked towards this in my doctoral research, using trained javelin athletes, military personnel and martial arts specialists to evaluate spear performance. None of these groups are perfect proxies but it’s a start, providing comparative datasets of groups of humans, which can begin to build a large-scale picture of relationships between skill, human variability and performance. Others have also recognised these problems, with new and exciting research involving skilled users. I can point in particular to research on Neanderthal spears by Alice La Porta, as well as by Gaudzinski-Windheuser and colleagues as examples of good practice regarding replicating hand-delivered spears with skilled participants. Together this new spate of research helps us appreciate the significance of skill and experience and to re-evaluate controlled experimental setups. Hopefully such work begins to undo some of the damage we’ve done in underestimating the skills of people in the past.
Bourke, J. G. (1890). Vesper Hours of the Stone Age. American Anthropologist, 3(1), 55–64. http://doi.org/10.2307/658328?ref=no-x-route:5cbc604e825d3e3c9b4d8e442119440c
Churchill, S. E. (1993). 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(1), 11–24. http://doi.org/10.1525/ap3a.19184.108.40.206
Davies, R. H. (1846). On the aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land. Tasmanian Journal, January, 409–412.
Dira, S. J., & Hewlett, B. S. (2016). Learning to Spear Hunt Among Ethiopian Chabu Adolescent Hunter-Gatherers. In Social Learning and Innovation in Contemporary Hunter-Gatherers (Vol. 15, pp. 71–81). Tokyo: Springer Japan. http://doi.org/10.1007/978-4-431-55997-9_6
Eren, M. I., Lycett, S., Patten, R. J., Buchanan, B., Pargeter, J., & O’Brien, M. J. (2016). Test, Model, and Method Validation: The Role of Experimental Stone Artifact Replication in Hypothesis-driven Archaeology. Ethnoarchaeology, 8(2), 103–136. http://doi.org/10.1080/19442890.2016.1213972
Hart, C. W. M., & Pilling, A. R. (1960). The Tiwi of North Australia. New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston.
Howard, C. D. (1974). The atlatl: function and performance. American Antiquity, 102–104.
Hughes, S. S. (1998). Getting to the point: evolutionary change in prehistoric weaponry. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 5(4), 345–408.
Whittaker, J. C., & Kamp, K. A. (2006). Primitive Weapons and Modern Sport: Atlatl Capabilities, Learning, Gender, and Age. Plains Anthropologist, 51(198), 213–221. http://doi.org/10.1179/pan.2006.016
Whittaker, J. C., Pettigrew, D. B., & Grohsmeyer, R. J. (2017). Atlatl Dart Velocity: Accurate Measurements and Implications for Paleoindian and Archaic Archaeology. PaleoAmerica, 3(2), 161–181. http://doi.org/10.1080/20555563.2017.1301133