Spearthrower Performance: Ethnographic and Experimental Research

Article excerpt

Even after decades of spearthrower studies, researchers have relatively little reliable data on spearthrower performance, and yet prehistoric lifeways are often reconstructed through consideration of the capabilities of such weapon systems. Experimental study and considered dependence on ethnographic knowledge clarify the realitites of the spearthrower in use.


The spearthrower is known from the circumpolar regions, western Europe, and throughout most of North America, Central and South America, Australia, Melanesia and Micronesia. It has been in use since at least the Magdalenian of Upper Palaeolithic Europe approximately 17,000 years ago, and perhaps much earlier (cf. Caton-Thompson 1946; Knecht 1994). Although it is commonly held that Palaeoindian peoples of the New World employed the spearthrower to aid in depletion of late Pleistocene megafauna, it is not until after the Palaeoindian Period, between 9000 and 10,000 years ago, that the earliest evidence for its use is found at Warm Mineral Springs (Cockrell & Murphy 1978; Clausen et al. 1975; Royal & Clark 1960) and Marmes Rockshelter (Rice 1972; Sheppard et al. 1987). Interestingly, the spearthrower continued to be used in many areas of the New World long after the adoption of the bow, surviving until the 1960s in Mexico (Stirling 1960). Despite its eventual replacement, the spearthrower offers several advantages that may account for its persistence among various cultures (Raymond 1986); we believe one of the most important of these is the ability of the spearthrower to impart a much greater projectile force than the bow.

The bulk of spearthrower research has been concerned with how the device functions to increase propulsion (Browne 1940; Butler 1975; Howard 1974; Patterson 1977; Perkins 1992), often concentrating on the role of spearthrower weights; various-sized and shaped stones occasionally attached to New World, flexible-type spear throwers (Peers 1960; Raymond 1985; Tolley & Barnes 1979). While such studies are necessary, we agree with Dickson (1985: 10) that 'the physics of the [spearthrower per se] are of less interest to anthropologists than the performance characteristics and capabilities of the weapon'.

A survey of the current literature reveals considerable disparity in assessments of spearthrower effectiveness. Unlike bow-and-arrow technologies, which have been reasonably well researched over the past century, archaeologists have little reliable data regarding the most important variables of spearthrower performance; dart weights, effective range and projectile velocity. We expect these variables to affect important archaeological concerns, such as projectile point breakage patterns, and studies of subsistence patterning and technological change, and thus have a ripple effect on the analysis of human behaviour.

Several factors contribute to the current variability in our knowledge of spearthrower performance. The most important of these may be a general lack of familiarity and requisite skill with the device. In a pioneering experimental study, Browne (1940: 211) stated 'any close degree of accuracy is impossible with the atlatl and the spear.' His description of throwing technique explains why: 'The throw is a fast overhand sweep [that] lifts the spear to a height above the head equal to the length of both the arm and the atlatl and this uncontrolled throw is the cause of the large angle of error' (1940: 211-12). This basic error in throwing technique was repeated by both Butler (1975: 105) and Patterson (1977: 159), and may account for a generalized perception of the spearthrower as an awkward and inaccurate weapon.

Kinesiological studies of throwing technique indicate that more than half of a spear's final velocity can be attributed to rotational acceleration of the wrist and forearm (Cooper & Glassow 1968: 122); the same is true for the spearthrower dart. In comparison, there is little velocity imparted by the straight-armed sweeping motion described by Browne (1940: 211). …