Stone Age Weapons: Arrows & Spears

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  • 0:03 Projectile Points
  • 1:14 Spears
  • 3:04 Bows & Arrows
  • 3:52 Uses
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Life was hard in the Stone Age, but ancient people used their technologies to cope. In this lesson, we'll see what spears and arrows were like in this era and examine how they helped the people of the Stone Age survive.

Projectile Points

The samurai had their katanas. Roman soldiers had the gladius. Medieval knights had broadswords. So, what weapons defined people of the Stone Age? Well, rocks.

The Stone Age is the era of human history before the development of metal tools. While Stone Age people had various scrapers, hand axes, and other stone tools, the most common - and possibly most important - were spears and arrows.

Both of these were what we call composite tools, because they were made of more than one material. The shaft was generally made of wood, and animal sinews or plant fibers were used to tie a stone to the tip.

This stone was sharpened on both edges and carved to a point, making it pretty deadly. You may recognize these as arrowheads or spearheads, although archeologists don't like those terms because it's hard to tell whether a stone point was hafted (attached to a handle) onto a spear or arrow (unless the wooden shaft survived, which is rare).

Instead, we use the term projectile point to refer to any stone tip attached to a wooden shaft. These were the tools that defined life for Stone Age humans for thousands of years.

Spears

Let's start by looking at the spear. Spears are some of the oldest tools in the world. The oldest ones may actually predate humanity itself, created by ancestors of our species like Homo heidelbergensis, who may have left behind 300,000 year-old wooden spears discovered in Germany. These ancient hominids made spears entirely of wood, sharpening the end of a stick into a point.

Humans made more advanced tools and were likely the first ones to take a sharpened rock and haft it onto a stick. These early spears were probably not very sophisticated and may have been too lopsided to be thrown. It's more likely that they were used as jabbing tools only and were not used as projectiles, although some archeologists disagree with this claim.

As the Stone Age progressed, humans developed better stone projectile points and better spears. Based on limited archeological data of wooden spear fragments, it seems likely that Stone Age people eventually learned to use fire to heat and shape wood, making straighter and more stable spear shafts.

Archeologists disagree on exactly when ancient humans developed spears that were primarily used as projectiles, but some estimates go as far back as 300,000 years or more. Evidence for this includes ancient bones of animals Stone Age people would have eaten; when bone is hit by a projectile, versus being stabbed, it breaks in different ways.

Of course, there was always room for improvement. At some point after leaving Africa, humans in communities around the world developed spear throwers, commonly called atlatls. The purpose of an atlatl is to basically extend the arm, giving more force to the throw and making spears travel faster and further. Considering that many of these people hunted things like giant bison or mammoths, we can easily understand the appeal of being able to stand further away from your prey while hunting!

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