Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Taking Ownership of Distance in the Stone Age with Spear, Atlatl, and Archery: Prehistoric Weapon Systems and the Domination of Distance

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Taking Ownership of Distance in the Stone Age with Spear, Atlatl, and Archery: Prehistoric Weapon Systems and the Domination of Distance

Article excerpt

The history of weapons is of crucial importance to the study of comparative civilization. Some of the most important technological advances in all civilizations were the result of human beings attempting to gain military advantage. In this paper I will look at three key weapons, the spear, the atlatl and the bow and arrow. While there is a fair amount of research on the spear and the bow and arrow, there is relatively little on the importance of the atlatl. This paper corrects the deficit. We will show that in addition to the spear and bow and arrow, the atlatl played an important role in increasing the distance from which one could attack or defend against an enemy, prey, or predator.

In the beginning there was a rock. A rock is an efficient weapon as far as it goes. Part of my family hails from Northern Ireland and the modem counterparts of the rock, specifically the cobblestone and the brick, have served valiantly in that locale as projectile weapons, delivered with sometimes surprising aerodynamic stability and accuracy by those on both sides of the political difficulties. But rocks and their modem counterparts are inelegant and more importantly very difficult to carry around in constant readiness. Further, the "technology" of the unfinished rock was available to all equally, and so gave its possessors little comparative advantage. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the earliest times alternatives to the rock were developed.

Three significant weapon systems appear during the Stone Age, which, in concert with other basic survival strategies, helped early humans to survive and then thrive under often extremely adverse conditions. These three weapon systems were so significant and of such simple and technologically sound design and importance they would continue in recognizable form and be used in the military operations of civilized peoples well into the second millennia of the Common Era. These three systems are the spear, the dart thrower (atlatl), and archery.

Critical not only to the survival of our very early ancestors, these basic systems and their realized potential would help form military thinking and actions in civilizations which would eventually follow. These systems existed as tools and, as in any craft, the product of the craftsman is shaped in good part by the tools, materials and technology available to him. These systems would help shape the world in which we live today.

These systems were probably developed and improved over time by many generations of humans, some of whose innovations speak to the exceptional genius of early humanity. From the perspective of our modem world, where almost every student (in an industrialized country) has virtually limitless knowledge available at his or her fingertips, and so much food that obesity is becoming epidemic, it is difficult to imagine or truly appreciate the immensity of these innovations or the circumstances and conditions under which they were made.

Each of these three systems offered critical technological advances and aided early humans to survive, to dominate areas they chose to occupy, and to thrive through the ability to take adequate game, thereby providing sufficient food. The systems were so sound in their basic concepts and designs that they would work effectively in extremely varied environments and could be manufactured from a wide assortment of raw materials.

When used alone, each system was limited in the extent of its performance. The spear, although a near perfect close-quarter weapon and always ready for use, had a very limited range and area of domination. The atlatl, though having incredible range compared to the spear, and sharing the spear's constant state of immediate readiness, was limited in how many projectiles could be carried by a hunter, and it could not perform well as a close-quarter defensive weapon.

Archery, having the highest level of technology of the three systems, the longest accurate range, and the potential to carry larger numbers of projectiles, had serious deficiencies in that the bow could not, in most cases, be kept in strung condition, and therefore was not always immediately usable. …

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