A Review of Ethnographic use of Wooden Spears and Implications for Pleistocene hominin hunting

Lay summary authored by Annemieke Milks (Institute of Archaeology, UCL, London, GB). Read the full paper here: http://doi.org/10.5334/oq.85

In the year 1911 Samuel Hazzledine Warren, an amateur British geologist, made an unprecedented discovery – a wooden artefact from Pleistocene sediments in Clacton-on-Sea (UK) – which he reported to the Royal Geological Society as being ‘the point of a palaeolithic spear’. In the same year, the German geologist and mining engineer Fritz Noetling described the design and uses of Aboriginal Tasmanian wooden spears for Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania. Noetling described these one-piece spears crafted from a single piece of wood as ‘simple’ and ‘primitive’, and characterised those who made them using racist language. Unfortunately, Noetling cannot be singled out in his use of such language or analogical reasoning: several archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists subsequently made similar arguments that connected people using simple technologies with cognitive deficiencies. Furthermore, academics have often referenced wooden spears used in small-scale societies in selective and arguably damaging ways. This relates both to the interpretations of their technologies, and by extension, the frameworks that these observations provided for evaluating human evolutionary trajectories.

Figure 1: One of the few remaining Aboriginal Tasmanian spears (M.2723), located in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. These spears, made of woolly teatree (Leptospermum lanigerum),were thrown by hand at great distances, and are exceptionally long and thin. Photo credit: A. Milks, with thanks to the Aboriginal Advisory Council and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for permission to study and photograph these objects.   

Interpretations like that of Fritz Noetling, which linked one-piece wooden tools with ‘primitivism’, have unfortunately been repeated by researchers who interpreted Pleistocene wooden spears as simple and ineffective, particularly in relation to subsequent innovations by Homo sapiens. This characterisation, partly based on their being one-piece tools, ignores key design features. For example, carefully placed points of balance and tapering allow spears to function as projectile weapons, while specific shaping of the wood facilitates both durability and penetration into prey. Continuing the analogy, researchers proposed that technological and performance limitations resulted in severe constraints on how and what hominins wielding such weapons could hunt. However, as is shown in this review paper, these analogies are based on incomplete and selective ethnographic data, or unskilled experiential use of replicas. They do not harmonise with the mounting evidence that Pleistocene hominins inhabited many different environments and terrains, had sophisticated and variable technologies, and were hunting many different types of prey.

Figure 2: A selection of the animals reported to be hunted with wooden spears in the ethnographic literature. Clockwise from top left: Jaguar (Panthera onca), beaver (Castor canadensis), tapir (Tapirus terrestris), and emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae). Image created by Annemieke Milks from the following open sources: Jaguar: By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography.co.uk, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87748243. Beaver: By Daderot – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53887232. Tapir: By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44250734. Emu: By John Robert McPherson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81694697

This paper presents the first systematic review of the use of wooden spears by recent small-scale societies. It includes examples of the use of these weapons for hunting and violence, and documents how and where they were used. Collectively, it shows that wooden spears were used in diverse climates and ecological settings, including both open and forested environments. People used them to hunt a wide variety of both dangerous and docile prey including rodents, large herbivores, carnivores, flightless birds and aquatic mammals. Hunting strategies were similarly varied, and wooden spears are clearly adaptable weapons that can be used in creative and multifunctional ways. A reinterpretation of Pleistocene hunting based on these ethnographic data and further supported by recent experiments should help resolve some current tensions in the discipline. Indirectly, it supports recent archaeological evidence that Pleistocene hominins were more technologically and behaviourally flexible than they are often suggested to have been.

Full paper: Milks, A., 2020. A Review of Ethnographic Use of Wooden Spears and Implications for Pleistocene Hominin Hunting. Open Quaternary, 6(1), p.12. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/oq.85

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