Throwback Thursday: Primitive Weapons

posted on June 22, 2017

A few basic rules of hunting are universal. You make sure you have the right equipment. You make sure you know where you’re going. You dress appropriately for the elements. Don’t forget to carry water either.

Now imagine you are gearing up for a hunt 12,000 years ago. Now what? Guns don’t exist yet. Recurve bows won’t be invented for a few thousand years. The gear you take is only what you (or your family members) made for yourself. For warmth, you wear an animal hide that was scraped clean with stones. For weapons, well, you have to make those from bone, stone, shells or wood. To make sure you don’t get lost, you have to know the landscape really well—there were no compasses or maps then, you know. The toughest part of all is simple: If you don’t hit your target, you don’t get to eat dinner.

Somehow, folks back then managed to get by. The fact that we’re around today is testimony to that. We are the direct descendants of those tough men and women who knew how to throw an atlatl, haft a spear point, and shoot straight when aiming a bow and arrow.

So how did we get this far, from stone tools and weapons to the modern contraptions we have today?

It makes sense to go back to the beginning. Depending on whom you ask—and there is by no means total agreement on this—humans crossed into North America by walking between what is today Russia and Alaska. Twelve thousand years ago (give or take), much of what is now Canada and the United States was covered in ice. Small bands of people walked across this cold landscape and then south along the Pacific coast.

The original stone tools found in North America are called Clovis points, named for a small town in New Mexico where they were first found. These were likely used as spear points to kill large animals like bison, deer, elk and woolly mammoth (an extinct relative of the modern elephant). Clovis points were attached to atlatls, hunting tools that resembled and functioned somewhat like a handheld catapult.

The atlatl has two parts. The first is a long handle with a hook on the far end. That hook attaches to the other piece of the atlatl, called the dart, which resembles a short spear. When the atlatl is swung overhanded (like a baseball), the dart launches off the hook and toward whatever big animal is unfortunate enough to be standing in the way.

For the next few thousand years, people slowly became better at making tools, and therefore, became better hunters. Those big Clovis spear points, used for jabbing at large animals, disappeared and were replaced by thinner, fancier tools. Smaller projectile points (which many people mistakenly call “arrowheads”) indicate that prehistoric men and women were hunting smaller animals, like rabbits. We also start seeing evidence that people weren’t just eating meat, but grinding up plants for food as well.

Bows and arrows came along in North America fairly recently. These functioned much the same way that modern bows do, but were larger and less precise. Still, the remains of them—often just stone arrow points, since the wooden bows decomposed long ago—tell us that native peoples were fond of hunting small game.

We know all this because of archaeology. Archaeologists are the scientists who study how people used to live. There are all sorts of archaeologists. Some study the oldest known humans, located in modern-day east Africa. Others study the very recent past, of a hundred years ago or less. Contrary to what some think, none of them study dinosaurs—that’s the job of paleontologists.

Archaeologists have all sorts of ways of figuring out how people used to live. One way is by experimenting with the kinds of tools prehistoric people themselves used, such as stones.

Chris Wernick is one such experimental archaeologist. He is a student at the University of Colorado-Denver. He is also a flint knapper.

“Here’s a Clovis. This here is just a Mississippi triangular point. This one’s a Dalton point,” he says, pointing to his collection of homemade artifacts. He notes that projectile points are identifiable by where they were made, and these types have different names based on those locations.

He has other objects, too: a piece of deer antler, a soft piece of leather not much larger than his hand, some round stones. Wernick explains a little about his technique, which involves laying the leather pad on his thigh, and knocking off small flakes with the round stone. Once the point is close to how he wants it, Wernick uses the deer antler to push down on its sides, creating a tool with razor-sharp serrated edges that look a little like the side of a bread knife.

He shows off one of his knives, made of wood, stone and sinew (the tendons from a deer). The sinew Wernick uses is artificial, and is wrapped tightly around the end of the wooden stick to hold the point in place. Another material used to secure stone tools is simply called “gut” – the intestinal tissue of squirrel, rabbit or, Wernick says, “whatever people back then could get their hands on.”

Asked about why he makes stone tools, Wernick says, “I love archaeology and I love stone tools, and I figured the best way to learn about them is to know how to make them.”

Wernick says making atlatl points, spear points and arrow points is all about finding the right angle. “It’s definitely a chess game,” he says. “You have to think four moves ahead. The damage you do on this side could mess up the other side.” When making stone tools, you have to understand the laws of physics. Every time you break off a piece of stone, it will change how the next piece will break off. Do it wrong, and you’ll break the point in half and have to start all over again.

“Everyone does it differently,” he adds.

If you want to learn more about stone tools, how they are made and where it is legal to use them (atlatl hunting permits actually do exist!), check out these resources:

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History has a great website where you can learn about the history of stone tools and how they were made.

There’s a company in California called Paleotechnics that teaches people how to live off the land using ancient techniques.

There is also a school in Maine that gives hands-on lessons in trapping, drum-making, shelter-building, and, of course, flint knapping.



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