Paleolithic Age Weapons

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How violent was the Paleolithic world? It's an interesting question. In this lesson, we're going to examine ancient weapons and see what it can tell us about violence in human societies.

Paleolithic Weapons

Is warfare a fundamental part of what it means to be human? It's an interesting question. Are we genetically predisposed to violence, or is it a societal condition? To answer this question, some people have looked to the archaeological record. After all, if we can find evidence of warfare in the earliest humans, then that tells us something about our propensities towards violent conflicts.

The oldest objects that can reliably be called weapons were developed way back in the Paleolithic, or the Old Stone Age, which is a massive chunk of time extending from the dawn of humanity to the development of agriculture and settled societies. But, what exactly were these weapons, and what was their true purpose? Maybe by getting to know ancient weapons a little better, we can learn something about ourselves.

Materials, Tools, Weapons

Stone tools emerge in the archaeological record before the evolution of modern humans, but humans expanded these technologies into new and innovative forms. Some of these tools would be our first weapons, but before we get into the actual forms, we need to understand the materials. Your basic stone tool was made of a stone that was soft enough to break into shape, but strong enough to hold an edge. Stones like flint, obsidian, chert, and quartzite were commonly used around the world. Beyond that, early humans often used stone tools in tandem with tools made of bone or wood, most of which did not survive into the archaeological record as well as stone.

With these materials, Paleolithic humans made a myriad of tools for daily life. Here's where we encounter our first question: what defines a weapon? Paleolithic humans developed small blades of stone by chipping sharp slivers off a core and attaching it to a club or handle. Knives were made with larger stone blades, and hand-axes were made by sharpening a core into a wedge. All of these objects could have been used as weapons, but also had functions in daily life. Blades were used to scrape animal hides, knives were used to cut things, and axes were used to chop wood, bone, and other materials.

Paleolithic hand-axe
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Projectile Points

The Paleolithic tools most easily identifiable as weapons are the projectile points, or stone points that were attached to a spear or arrow shaft. Projectile points had one function in ancient society: to kill. Of course, this generally meant hunting, rather than warfare. Projectile points were carved with two sharpened edges and were made to be strong enough to puncture animal hides, even those of formidable prey like mammoths. Archaeologists disagree on whether or not spears of the Paleolithic were actually thrown, or simply used to increase the distance from which a person could stab large prey.

A paleolithic projectile point from Europe
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Regardless, projectile points were a huge industry of the ancient world. Stone quarries in Europe, the Americas, and Asia from this time show heavy use, enough to produce thousands of projectile points. What's also really interesting is that good stone was clearly highly valued as a trade commodity. Stone tools have been found hundreds to thousands of miles from their source quarry, indicating that these objects had a vital role in ancient economies.

The value of projectile points was also likely due to the skill it took to create them. It's a time-intensive process that requires lots of attention and precision. Even the best knappers (stone tool carvers) likely had limited success rates, as a single wrong blow could shatter the entire point. Since it took so much time to create projectile points, it's possible that this was one of the first skilled professions.

Cave art showing a hunt
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Evidence of Warfare

Projectile points were deadly, but this still does not prove that they were weapons in the truest sense. They were most likely primarily used for hunting. To this day, some researchers believe that true weapons, designed for killing humans and without any other purpose, weren't developed until after the Paleolithic.

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