Making a Point: Wood-Versus Stone-Tipped Projectiles

Article excerpt


Wendell Oswalt's classic cross-cultural analysis of forager technology Habitat and technology: the evolution of hunting begins with the following dedication: 'To the maker of man--THE STICK' (1973). Recognising the importance of simple implements to the human technological repertoire, Oswalt suggests that that the pointed wooden "missile stick" (1973: 176) provided the foundation for further elaboration into multi-component (i.e. tipped) hunting weapons. Modified wooden staves from Lehringen (Movius 1950; Thieme 1997), Clacton-on-Sea (Oakley et al. 1977) and Schoningen 13 (Thieme 1999) date from "~500 000-125 000 BP and are interpreted to have been used as thrusting spears. These wooden implements, and their association with large-bodied faunal remains, provide some evidence that the simple modified 'stick' was utilised early in human prehistory as a hunting implement. While alternative functional explanations are also plausible (e.g. Gamble 1986), it has been argued, based on lithic point performance and dimensional analysis (Shea et al. 2001; Shea 2006), that hafted projectiles were not in use until c. 40 000 BP. Analyses of wear and breakage patterns resulting from hafting and use have identified the use of stonetipped spears from the Levantine Mousterian (Shea 1988; Borda et al. 1999), Crimean Middle Paleolithic (Hardy et al. 2001) and from the Middle Stone Age of South Africa (Donahue et al. 2002). Further, upper limb asymmetry in Neandertal and Early Modern Humans suggest that thrusting spears, as opposed to propelled weapons (Schmitt et al. 2003), were predominately in use throughout the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic of Europe. These studies documenta shift from simple thrusting spears to multi-component propelled weaponry, However, two distinct issues are relevant to this technological change: the shift from thrusting to propelled weapons (either by hand or with the aid of spear-throwers), and the shift from modified wooden staves to hafted points of stone, bone and ivory. The latter issue is our primary concern.

The near global ubiquity of stone projectile points in the archaeological record indicates that once developed/adopted, the technology endured. Few artefacts have the unique distributive characteristics of simultaneously being both relatively common in the record, yet spatio-temporally distinct in morphology particularly in the Americas. These features, of being both familiar and diverse, have provided the ideal medium for utilising artefacts as chronological and geographic indicators. While these features may seem obvious, the arguably obsessive attention stone projectile points have received has not elucidated the reasons for their use. Numerous 'common knowledge' explanations appear to be generally accepted regarding the superiority of stone, and to a lesser extent, osseous point tips relative to sharpened staves (e.g. Guthrie 1983; Arndt & Newcomer 1986). Assumptions concerning performance (e.g. durability of the tip), lethality (e.g. length of cutting edge, depth of penetration) and aerodynamics (e.g. weight distribution, flight paths) abound. Unfortunately, few of these assumptions have been verified experimentally.

While stone has potential functional benefits, it also has costs. Experiments designed to test various functional (Bergman & Newcomer 1983; Shea 1993), manufacturing (Odell & Cowan 1986; Broglio et al. 1993) and morphological characteristics (Flenniken 1985; Titmus & Woods 1986; Shea et al. 2001; Cheshier & Kelly 2006) of stone projectile points converge upon one common conclusion; stone points break in use and break frequendy. While damage type and frequency are variable between studies, it appears consistent that few stone projectile points remain in useable condition after multiple uses (Shea 1993). For example, Odell & Cowan (1986: 207) found that in a sample of 20 bifacially worked spearheads, they could be used on average three times before suffering catastrophic breakage, and averaged only 2. …