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Military History science

The oldest weapon

Throughout history, humans have invented an infinite array of tools to perfect the art of waging war. Over time, this has created a variety of weapons to choose from: guns, swords and arrows are the most visible ones. But there were so many others that didn’t quite survive into the modern age – like spears, slings, atlatl and The Terminator.

But what was the first weapon humans used? Trying to answer this question is more complicated than I first thought. There are many red herrings, questions of semantics and a whole heap of (I think) illogical candidates. Plus, it doesn’t help that science has come up with several different candidates at various points in history. This post summarises the history of the history of our weapons, and tries to provide a definitive answer to the question “what did the earliest humans use as weapons?”

Semantics

The first issue with uncovering the forefather of all modern weapons is semantics – or the meaning of certain operative terms. What do we mean by ‘weapon’? Do we mean anything with which you can hurt another person? What about animals and other living beings? What does it mean to cause hurt? Do we mean any kind of hurt, or do we mean physical pain? Moreover, what does it mean to be able to hurt? Does it have to be intentional, or is unintentional use alright? Depending on how you answered the above questions, a stone, a poisonous leaf and a racial slur can all be classified as weapons. But that’s silly – the list of weapons we seek to control have never included rocks or any other suitably dense object. Airplanes still allow you to carry onions, even though they’re highly toxic to cats and dogs. And despite all the progress we’ve made in eradicating racial slurs and epithets, popular discourse has never seen them as ‘weaponised language‘, although some sociologists are starting to push for changes in this direction.

So clearly, our definition of weapons is much more narrow: a weapon is a tangible device that humans use to inflict physical pain and/or death upon prey, game and other humans.

But here, we run into another complicated term: what do we mean by ‘human’? Do we mean modern humans who have discovered fire, wheel and agriculture? Or do we mean historical humans who may have had knowledge of these concepts but did not have any means to control them? If we accept that we mean Homo sapiens, how do we then view the weapons that may have predated our species? What about weapons that Homo sapiens may have picked up from other Homo species? In answering this question alone, we run into the full weight of human taxonomy, and all the interesting branches of Homo that we humans derive from. In a previous post, I’d written about emerging research on human migration, which paints a much more colourful and contentious picture of our ancestry than we could have imagined even a decade ago. For example, are Neanderthals a separate species of Homo, or are they merely subspecies of Homo sapiens that died out before historical times? At one point in prehistory, at least nine species of humans walked the Earth – and now there’s only one. Where did the rest go? Did we kill them all? Or did we absorb some of their genetic makeup into the human pool? These and many other questions remain unanswered to this day – for what it’s worth, I think some of these questions will never truly be answered by science alone. But our inquiry must go on, and we must draw a line somewhere.

The many human species that we know of. Source: ScienceAlert

My definition of ‘human’ is essentially a cop out: I mean any Homo species that were present on Earth by the time Homo sapiens began migrating out of Africa, and came in contact with Homo sapiens, either through warfare or through interbreeding. So, by this definition, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo floresiensis are both ‘human’, even if this stretches the word to its limit.

Finally, there is the question of ancestry. When we say ‘ancestor of modern human weapons’, what do we mean by ‘ancestor’? Do we mean weapons that have survived to the present day? Or do we mean any weapon that may have evolved into a weapon we can recognise today? What about dead-end weapons that humans may have used at some point, but are no longer seen to be of any value?

For me, the definition of ancestor is the one that is most useful to understanding weapon evolution and migration. So, dead-ends and made-up weapons are of no use. So, I will only consider weapons that are the direct evolutionary forefathers of modern weapons i.e. bows, swords, spears, catapults, slingshots etc.

Definition

To summarise, this is the definition of “modern human weapon” I will use:

  1. It inflicts physical pain and/or death to humans and other animals
  2. It was created with the intention of causing pain or death
  3. It was created by any of the 4 to 9 human species present on Earth by the time Homo sapiens began migrating out of Africa
  4. It has survived to the present day either in its original form or through some direct evolutionary descendants

Candidates

With these in mind, there are several candidates for the title of ‘ancestor of modern human weapons’. Some are not as obvious as the others.

Boomerangs

Yes, the boomerang. That same icon of Australian aboriginal culture. While we think of aboriginal people in Australia when we think of boomerangs, we find anceint boomerangs all over the place: from Africa to Europe. Boomerangs with gold tips were even found in Tutenkhamun’s tomb, showing that the story of boomerangs may be an ironic tale of Eurocentric world’s “self-discovery”. Boomerangs are surprisingly old: the oldest boomerangs we know of were found in a cave in southern Poland. Dated to about 23,000 years ago, these boomerangs were made of mammoth tusk and were likely used to hunt small-medium sized game like deer and boar. Interestingly, the oldest evidence of boomerangs from Australia are from nearly the same time period: about 20,000 years ago.

Paleolithic boomerang from southern Poland. Source: Reddit

Although we only think of boomerangs as those wooden things that return to the thrower, returning boomerangs are not the only kind of boomerangs humans have used. In Australia, both types of boomerangs are used to hunt birds and game. A returning boomerang can be thrown above a flock of ducks to simulate a hovering hawk. The frightened birds then fly into nets set up in their flight path or, if they come within range, the hunters can use non-returning boomerangs to bring the birds down.

Other than their use as weapons, boomerangs are also incredibly versatile tools: you can dig holes with them, flint-tipped ones can be used to start fires, weighted boomerangs can be used as hammers and to stun fish underwater, and some Aboriginal communities use them to make music.

The varied uses and the timeline of artefacts from Australia and Poland suggests one of two things: either early humans were already using boomerangs when they moved out of Africa, or the invention of boomerangs occurred independently on mainland Eurasia and Australia. If boomerangs were invented around Europe, what role did Neanderthal communities have in their creation? While this possibility would make for some juicy military history, the timelines just don’t support either side of the argument. Neanderthals went exist around 40,000 years ago, and we don’t see any evidence of boomerangs for at least 20,000 years after that. So yes, you can assume that Neanderthals gave humans more than just 20% of their DNA, but there isn’t any evidence to support it.

Atlatl

You may wonder why this list of prospective candidates does not include the bow and arrow. The bow and arrow is undoubtedly one of humanity’s most important weapons of war – entire empires have risen on the backs of people’s skill with launching sharpened projectiles using a taut string. The Mongols proved for all posterity that agility and mastery of archery are enough to turn a forgotten people into a truly fearsome force. The subsequent invention of crossbows, longbows and later seige instruments only serves to prove the point that archery has been one of the strongest shapers of human civilization.

Some have suggested that bows and arrows predate modern humans, but I can’t find any evidence that this is a popular view among paleoarchaeologists, so that remains an interesting theory – even if highly unconventional. However, we do know what bows and arrows came from: in Africa, we have remains from ~40,000 years ago of a weapon that works on the same principle of using tension to propel projectiles. Before there were bows and arrows, there was the “Stone Age Kalashnikov“: the atlatl. The construction of atlatl is surpringly simple: all you need is a long, flexible spear that is pointed on one end and held taut in the notch of a “spur” at the other. You create tension in the spear by driving it into the notch, and let it go to send the spear flying.

The atlatl is a curious thing. While the principle makes sense to anybody who’s played with pen refills in school, its construction is almost alien to us. It’s also a humble reminder that ancient people saw the world around them in ways we’d scarcely recognise now. If nothing else, the atlatl pushes our timeline for early weapons to at least 40,000 years ago.

Daggers, swords and the such

If you thought daggers were the most obvious candidates for early weaponry, you’d be very very wrong. Daggers are short, close-range weapons with at least one sharpened edge. Unlike arrows and spears that really only need a pointed tip, daggers need a sharpened edge, which requires considerably more effort and skill. Moreover, early humans used rocks, wood and things like volcanic glass, which are all brittle and hard to shape into the form of a dagger that needs a sharp edge and a blunt handle that is comfortable to grip. So, daggers really only came into the picture in the Bronze Age around 5000 years ago. Significant as they may be to warfare historically, daggers and swords are very recent inventions in most parts of the world.

Spears

Then we have the boring “pointed stick”: the spear. Spears are good melee weapons, used to maintain distance between the human and the prey (possibly another human), while causing damage. They offer many advantages to simple hand-to-hand combat: you can put some distance between yourself and the other party, thus minimizing injury; you can sharpen one end and use it to bleed the other person, thus reducing the amount of effort you need to bring them down. Also, you can accessorize your pointy stick by tying a sharpened piece of rock to the end.

Spears have a solid paleoarchaeological footprint: there is evidence of humans using spears from as long as 400,000 years ago. No other weapon comes even close to this. Nearly every Stone Age site on every continent shows evidence of spear usage, sometimes tipped with sharpened stone fragments. Paleolithic remains from Europe and Africa are littered with pointed sticks, leading us to believe that they could very well be the oldest weapons we know of. More clinchingly, modern chimpanzees use pointed sticks to hunt bushbabies.

Chimps hunting bushbabies. Source: National Geographic

Is this the answer we have been looking for? Are spears the forefathers of swords, pikes and all other weapons? In my humble opinion, probably not. Spears need you to be very close to the other party before they can be of any use. Unless hunting defenseless animals like fish, rabbits and small deer, the prey can very easily fight back or run away. Moreover, spears are absolutely useless against any large mammal – and paleology has shown definitively that early humans frequently hunted large mammals like mammoths, bison and even saber-toothed cats. Even if hunting in a group, a bunch of 5 foot tall bipeds with large brains and reduced musculature wouldn’t be able to hunt a 12 foot mammoth with a 6″ thick skin and a prehensile trunk. Clearly, a spear would be of very limited use to early humans.

What they’d need is a throwable spear – something that can be used for melee if necessary, but intended to be thrown. Something about 2-3 feet long, made of easily-available material like wood and tipped with only a perfunctory rock or glass. Something versatile but also easy to make. Something like a javelin.

Javelins

Javelins are a forgotten class of weapons. Javelins were replaced by bows and arrows when archery was “discovered” by Europeans who were repeatedly trounced in the battlefield by armies from Central Asia. Time and time again, the disciplined, regimented armies of Rome would be defeated by “barbarians” with superior archers. This would be a pattern with established armies across the world: the incumbent armies, lulled into a life of stability and safety, invested in ostentatious melee weapons like swords, fancy war horses and warhammers. Invading generals chose instead to shed all weight and invest in nimble ranged weapons that allowed them to attack with force and retreat with speed. The Hindu rulers of northern India were conquered by marauding armies of Muslim generals who relied on improvised seige weapons and horse archers. A similar fate befell the wealthy rulers of West-Central Asia when Genghis Khan adopted similar tactics.

Javelins served the same purpose in prehistoric times. Whereas prey had various means to defend themselves at short range (tusks, trunk, claws, hide, antlers etc.), humans hunted that prey from a distance. Their weapons would have been intended to cause damage over multiple hits. Fossil remains show that early humans on the African savannah hunted this way, using javelins to help them chase an animal to death. This hunting method has been called “persistence hunting”, and evolutionary biologists have used it to explain many features about the human body that seem to be designed to help us run more efficiently and for longer: the Achilles tendon, arched feet, short toes, wide shoulders, etc. I’ll be the first to admit that persistence hunting is a hotly-debated issue in academic circles, and there’s strong evidence on both sides of the debate.

But there are many reasons for why we should suppose that the earliest weapons were indeed javelins. First, the Hadza people of Tanzania. These hunter-gatherers are known to engage in persistence hunting for at least part of the year. Their methods are very similar to what early humans would have employed, and the prey they hunt is mostly the same as well – large animals like the kudu, wildebeest and zebra. The weapons they use are not spears and swords. They use javelins and bows and arrows. Here’s a summary of their technique as captured in Attenborough’s “Life of Mammals”.

Second, people who think that humans had to use spears just because chimpanzees also use spears tend to minimize the differences in the type of prey hunted. Early humans hunted in large groups to bring down large mammals. Chimpanzees hunt in small groups to hunt small-medium sized mammals, generally smaller than the chimps themselves. Their prey of choice are colobus monkeys and bush babies, both of which are much smaller than themselves and largely defenseless against the more aggressive, powerful chimpanzes. Also, humans hunted out on the savannah and in forest clearings whereas chimps are mostly arboreal hunters that go after other tree-dwelling animals. The weapons you’d use to hunt a fleeing kudu or gazelle are very different from what you’d use against a baboon.

Finally, the earliest spears archaeologists have uncovered are almost certainly javelins. Conard et al. (2020) almost state as much, by showing that most Paleolithic artefacts misclassified as spears would be better labelled as “throwing sticks”. In addition, stone-tipped javelins found in Ethiopia have been dated to around 280,000 years ago, suggesting that these weapons probably predate Homo sapiens, which are known from the fossil record only around 200,000 years ago. In Germany, there is evidence of wooden throwing spears from as far back as 350,000 years ago, well before Homo sapiens evolved.

So there we have it. The mystery has been solved: the earliest human weapons were probably javelins.


Bonus: The Flail

Do you know what a flail is? You know what a flail is. It’s a stick with a spiked ball at the end, attached to a chain or rope. It’s a very common trope in medieval fantasy literature, and a steady fixture in any Hollywood scene showing brutality and torture in early Europe.

The cool thing is, it probably didn’t even exist. There is a whole fascinating article on The Public Medievalist that goes into more detail of why it’s so prevalent in our popular imagination, and goes to debunk the idea that these impractical, unwiedly things ever existed.

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