Since the dawn of creation, man has been in relentless pursuit of sustainability. From early Hunter-Gatherer cultures to modern Agrarian societies, humankind has fashioned for itself tools by which to proliferate natural resources. No tool has impacted human culture more than that of early edged weapons. Whether a flint tipped spear, or an arrow thrown from an Atlatl, early man discovered creative ways to limit his exposure to danger while maximizing his ability to acquire needed materials for his continued survival. Little is understood concerning the origins of early mankind, yet the most basic question researched by modern archaeologists is what lead to the transition between the thrusting spear and the projectile?
Archaeological evidence discovered in Germany documents the use of wooden spears at least 400,000 years ago for hunting. Early hunters used flint, or other stone-tipped spear points after they discovered that these materials were more resistant to damage and able to be knapped, producing an extremely sharp point and edges. Stone replaced sharpened wooden-tipped spears in most of Europe and Africa by 250,000 B.C. These middle Paleolithic peoples began to be more artistic and complex in their designs and more elaborate in their means of creating these edged weapons. Before the Magdalenian period discernible differences remained between spears constructed for throwing and those built for thrusting.
Around the middle Paleolithic period the Atlatl became the primary used tool to throw the specially designed projectile or dart. The earliest discovered atlatl is a 17,500-year old Solutrean piece made of reindeer horn discovered in France by archaeologists. With the decline of the middle Paleolithic period and the beginning of the Epi-Paleolithic, or upper Paleolithic period, the Atlatl was replaced by the bow and arrow as the primary tool for propelling projectiles across areas with precision and force. This advancement and its status was mostly due to the fact that the projectiles could be smaller due to the physics involved in their use and thus consume fewer resources and require less time to construct.
The bow and arrow became the most widely used hunting and defensive tool of early man by 16,000 B.C. This tool was taken along migratory paths, across ice bridges, and even altered to suit the needs of a rapidly heating climate due to the decline of the ice age. Its construction was changed and the material used adapted with reference to the natural game it was used to hunt. The use of the bow was continued by most European groups until the discovery of gun powder and the replacement of the bow and arrow with the firearm and ball. The American Aborigine continued to use the bow and arrow until the destruction of the buffalo and their culture’s decline between 1850 and 1900. In modern times the bow and arrow, as well as the spear, hold prominent places in the ceremonial life and religious practices of American Aborigine and it continues to be a symbol of power among the remaining Native American nations and cultures.
In as much as its intended use and abilities the bow and arrow is by and far superior to the thrusting spear. The bow allows the person firing it to keep a secure distance from the intended target, thus making it more safe. The spear requires a hand-to-hand fighting style and can only be thrown short distances with any degree of precision. While the Roman army used the spear until their cultures collapse September 4th, 476 its ceremonial use continues to this day with the Swiss Guards use of the halberd or ax equipped spear. It is important to note that when the Huns, Visigoths and other Barbarian tribes invaded Rome, they relied heavily upon the long range of the bow and arrow to gain the tactical advantage over those held in siege within the great cities of Italy.
Modern warfare and the proliferation of natural resources have come a long way since the days of armies aligning themselves along opposing hills and moors. The bow and arrow allowed smaller forces to carry out guerrilla raids and small scale tactical invasions against larger forces with minimal loss of life. The evolution of this tool is both fascinating and disparaging in its ability to literally rain fire and iron from the sky. Where the evolution of weapons will take us few could guess, yet it is likely that the bow and arrow, as well as the spear, will always be the rudimentary foundation on which these weapons develop.