At the sharp end

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Projectile Technology

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Plenum: 1997. Pp.408 $59.50, £43.27

A chimpanzee can lob a brick quite effectively. A shared ancestry of long, strong arms, mobile shoulder joints and deft hands suggests that hominids too might have a long history of throwing things.

The oldest known wooden spear dates back some 400,000 years, and somewhere along the line people started to incorporate stone tips into what became composite weapons. Recent times have provided a worldwide plethora of projectiles, including spears and spear-throwers, bows, arrows and darts. In between these outline points there is a whole world for archaeology to explore.

Although an evolutionary perspective is inviting, the place to start is the present, because there is a vast amount of evidence, and a great range of weaponry, varied for reasons that are not always obvious. It seems appropriate that an American archaeologist should set out to bring together recent research across this field, because carefully shaped projectile points, striking to the eye, have been an important part of tool kits across the Americas for at least the past 12,000 years.

Heidi Knecht introduces a set of papers written by 19 contributors, including herself, all concentrating on projectile technology, and they pepper their target. For anybody who is intrigued by elementary — if not actually simple — technologies, much of this reading is a delight, even if technical detail occasionally takes over.

Authors such as John Shea who write about the earlier Palaeolithic manage to provide a broad evolutionary perspective. But modern humans have made most of the projectiles ever used, through at least the past 40,000 years, and it is fair that the book should be mainly about their products. Some of these are complicated and seem unlikely, such as the iron-tipped arrows of the Agta people in the Philippines which can look like the skeleton of a fish.

Compromise is the reality for people hunting animals, as their decisions involve how to approach prey as well as what technology to use. It is as easy to miss with a spear as with a bow. As emphasized by Robert Hitchcock and Peter Bleed, “⃛hunting proceeds through a number of steps, each of which carries the possibility of failure”. Most shots are delivered over a maximum of 25 metres, often less than half that. ‘Optimality’ involves choices about ‘durability’, ‘maintainability’ and ‘robusticity’, as the discussions show.

To understand what is going on there is a great need for some actualistic reference: experiment on the one hand, and ethno-archaeological observation on the other. What were the relative advantages of spear-throwers and bows for Upper Palaeolithic peoples? How many uses could a Mesolithic microlith have? It is encouraging to see the variables whittled down, and real progress made in the interpretations. There is not quite consensus, but spears make a far greater impact than arrows, and poison helps the latter do their damage.

A strength of the book is its wide range, ensured by having contributors from several traditions including American, French and British. The section on experimental work is substantial, extending to archaeological comparisons. The ethno-archaeological chapters are among the most readable, dealing with the well-known hunters of Africa and their present problems as well as their technology. Hunting practices of Venezuela and the Philippines also feature. World coverage cannot be comprehensive, but fortunately some authors give broad surveys. Pierre Cattelain, for example, discusses Australian technologies in his study of the Upper Palaeolithic, and provides numerous references.

Both editor and contributors have done well, despite a slightly wooden format, now too common, and probably imposed by publishers or a growing convention. Editors should have their say — but just once. When they write introductions to each and every section, and even to the concluding retrospective chapter, it implies that formula is more important than effective use of space. A concluding chapter is useful, however, and Margaret Nelson makes many pertinent comments, dealing en passant with sexism: if studies of projectiles and hunting tended to be by men about men, excellent studies here and elsewhere show that there is no good reason for that.

One has to be enthusiastic about the scholarly value of a book so packed with information and case studies. Spears and arrowheads, exotic and mundane, are all here, together with many analyses of hunting trips and decision paths, which are invaluable in showing how hunter-gatherers spend their time, and how they get their returns.

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