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December 24th, 2009
Program One: Becoming Us
Video Excerpt: Stone-Age Throwing Spears

Alan Alda joins John Shea at Stony Brook University for a lesson on Primitive Technology. Alan makes hand axes like a Neanderthal, but throws a pretty mean spear at an unsuspecting doe.

“Becoming Us” premieres January 6 on PBS.

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  • mim

    I’m hoping this series will address the question of how humans became selfish and greedy, willing to hoard more than they need for survival or even comfort and to kill hundreds of thousands of people for self interest. This seems to be a distinctly human behavior.

  • Tom Horth

    I’m interested in the relative advantages and disadvantiges of atlatl’s and bow & arrow’s, and the relative timing of their invention. Is there any evidence on these points?

  • James Toliver

    Man will always find a object to develope into a wespon for gathering food and protection, just take prison convict. They make weapons for protection almost out of any type and kind of objects available. The smarts of man then and now.

  • Mike Thomin

    Hi Tom,

    Although there is certainly debate about when atlatl’s and bows were invented by man, I can tell you that the general consensus for North American archaeology is that the atlatl arrived with the first people of the Americas, and that the bow and arrow was invented later (and independently by Native Americans), probably during the early Woodland period (1,000 BCE). So, in many respects, the bow and arrow was actually a technological improvement over the atlatl.

    The atlatl is basically just a stick with a hook on one end (sometimes bannerstones or weights are utilized), used to launch of spear. This was a huge advantage for hunters of big game species, for the simple fact that they no longer had to hunt their prey with hand held spears. As you can imagine, stalking a large animal (such as a short faced bear) with a spear was incredibly dangerous and often resulted in mortal wounds (a broken leg 10,000 years ago could easily result in death due to infection).

    The main advantage of the atlatl over the hand held spear was that hunters could now stand far back from their prey – a good atlatl thrower can hit a target the size of a deer accurately at about 30-40 yards away.
    1) This made hunting big game animals much safer- now they could stand a good distance away reducing the risk of being trampled or attacked by a wounded animal 2) The greater distance meant that hunters did not have to stalk their prey nearly as closely as before, increasing their chances of getting a shot off before the prey escaped.

    The bow and arrow had many advantages over the atlatl: 1) It could be “notched” (reloaded) much quicker than an atlatl 2) Arrows were easier to carry than darts or spears and they could carry more of them, because they were not as cumbersome- this allowed for lightweight travel and quieter movement 3) Bows can be fired from virtually any position and in dense vegetation (behind a tree or bush while crouching down, for example)- atlatl’s must be thrown in a generally cleared area and from the standing position- this exposed their position to the game and gave them less time for an accurate shot

    Of course, we do know that atlatl’s and bows and arrows were still in use simultaneously by Native Americans by the time Europeans started to colonize North, Central, and South America. I suspect the reasons for choosing one weapon over the other was primarily due to the construction material available and the type of prey they were hunting.

    A large, slow moving animal would better be dispatched with an atlatl and spear, since the spear point was generally much larger than an arrow point and would inflict a deeper and more damaging wound- average speed of an atlatl dart in the first second of flight is 125 feet per second, or 80-100 mph. Also, when the animal was brought down, the spear could be used for an accurate death blow up close- stabbing it between the rib bones for example is better accomplished with an accurate stab compared to a throw. Also, one advantage of the atlatl is that you do not have to make material for the string, or repair the string when it malfunctions. Personally, I’d prefer the bow and arrow, but again, I think it really just depends on what the hunter is more comfortable with using.

    Mike Thomin

  • Mike Thomin

    Also I should note that an arrow fired from a bow is more accurate and can fly at greater distances than an atlatl dart.


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