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January 5th, 2010
Expert Blogger: Spears, Arrows, and Poisons! by Veronica Waweru

Archaeologist Veronica Waweru’s first encounter with the Human Spark team was at Stony Brook University, where she showed Alan Alda some of the ancient projectile technology she studies. Later in the summer, Veronica met the crew in her native Kenya, to guide their search through a market looking for modern weaponry and to introduce them to a hunter who uses similar bows and arrows to the ones she believes have been used in East Africa for 100,000 years. More evidence for pushing the ignition of that human spark back further in time, and placing that moment on the African continent… Here, Veronica describes her field of research, some of her game-changing research on ancient hunting, and what it was like to work with our television crew.


Veronica Waweru shares some of her recreated arrows with Alan as Larry Engel and Peter Miller capture the video and audio and Producer Graham Chedd looks on. Credit: Maggie Villiger

By Veronica Waweru

Ancient human inventions always engender debate among paleoanthropologists. Models are developed to explain the appearance and timing of new “novel” technologies or behavior. I am no different from these researchers and harbor a fascination with the origin of the bow and arrow. This technology is central to discussions on the hunting abilities of ancients. Were they not-too-smart creatures that scavenged leftovers from big cats, did they only hunt docile animals or were they proficient hunters who brought down dangerous animals? These debates often also include comparisons of Homo sapiens of the last 200,000 years to their Neanderthal contemporaries. Often, the discussion pivots on whether early Homo sapiens were better hunters than Neanderthals. The evidence cited by most researchers suggests that our cold-adapted relatives in Eurasia were not such adept hunters – what with their rodeo-rider-type injuries and their large spears that would force them to engage prey face to face. The most damning evidence for Neanderthals’ technological ineptitude is their extinction – at least for those who do not believe that they interbred with Homo sapiens. But that is a different debate altogether!

Veronica holds a stone point that dates to 100,000 years ago.

Veronica holds a stone point that dates to 100,000 years ago.

Stone armatures or points are amongst the most durable artifacts found in the archaeological record. These were used to arm the business end of knives, javelins, stabbing spears, atlatls and the bow and arrow. All of the organic elements of these implements dating back to 200,000 years ago have decomposed, of course. We are left with the stone tips to determine what weaponry system they were part of. Here we apply laws of physics and ballistics, take copious measurements of the stone tips and attempt to extract ancient blood serum and fats from their edges to make our cases. Then we cite evidence of indigenous people who still use spears and arrows to hunt.

My work focuses on finding evidence of the bow and arrow using stone points from Cartwright’s site, located on the Kinangop plateau in Kenya. I have used most methods employed by researchers in the field but also went ahead and had replicas of the prehistoric tips made and hafted onto arrow shafts. We then shot them at sides of pork and a complete goat carcass (very humanely dispatched and used for food afterward). The results indicated that in terms of distance traveled and penetration, some of the points worked well as “arrowheads.”

Veronica examines the arrows of a modern hunter in Kenya while the Human Spark camera captures their exchange. Credit: Maggie Villiger

Veronica examines the arrows of a modern hunter in Kenya while the Human Spark camera captures their exchange. Credit: Maggie Villiger

To any hunter, putting distance between yourself and prey that might potentially fight back is important. Here, arrows have an advantage over spears. Weapons also need to deliver lethal blows, induce massive bleeding or cause damage to internal organs. Penetration depth is therefore important. In a nutshell, we have a lightweight projectile weapon dating to approximately 100,000 years ago in east Africa! One that can be transported for long distances, the head easily replaced, and the arrow shot from a variety of positions and potentially by a group of hunters, without alerting prey. Modern hunters often add a cocktail of poisons to the shafts of their arrows. These are derived from plants (such as the arrow poison tree) that have wide distribution in Africa. Did prehistoric hunters use arrows to deliver poisons to quarry? We may never know because poisons are unlikely to survive that long.

If arrows could be used effectively against large dangerous prey, why not against our enemies? Here the gore starts – coalitionary violence against members of our own species. What might prehistoric people fight over? Perhaps not oil or ideology but scarce food resources during dry climatic conditions brought on by glacial cycles. Would such a weapon, when used in tandem with poisons, not threaten the very survival of a group if people took to shooting each other over resources?

After showing that prehistoric stone tools were likely used with the bow and arrow, I am now investigating the implications of this invention. Many researchers have argued that human aggression has a genetic substrate. I suspect that cultural mechanisms would have evolved to protect members of a social group from each other. I am presently studying poison-tipped arrow use in interethnic violence in Kenya. This will give insights into lethal violence between members of an ethnic group and non-members. 100,000 years ago, long before Hammurabi’s law or the Ten Commandants were in place, ancients may have had an unwritten — albeit tempered — Second Amendment. Thou shall posses and use poison tipped projectiles, but only on outsiders.

Veronica became the center of attention at the Kariokor Market in Nairobi when she showed up with our film crew. Here a vendor exhibits the modern arrows he sells there. Caption: Maggie Villiger

Veronica became the center of attention at the Kariokor Market in Nairobi when she showed up with our film crew. Here a vendor exhibits the modern arrows he sells there. Caption: Maggie Villiger

My fascination with the gore and science of ancient projectiles and poisons, led me to join the Human Spark film crew in Kenya last summer. I did some background work to find people to interview about bows and arrows and poisons. Metal-tipped arrows for sale were easy to find. The poison sources and makers were more elusive. Do you want to kill a stray dog? A person? Why not try bewitching them? The best answer I got was that only very old men made poisons, but they lived “very far away” and may not to want talk to women or strangers. So when the Human Spark crew arrived, I had but one contact who made bows and arrows for sale and who failed to persuade his great uncle to speak about poisons. Our first shooting site was a local market in downtown Nairobi. The crew appeared very much at ease among the throngs of curious crowds and open sewers. My favorite part of the whole event was getting pulled over by local policemen on our way out of Nairobi. They are notorious for taking bribes, but one look at the huge camera and they let us go. I almost dared them to ask for a bribe.

Next summer, I will get a big dummy camera to scare away corrupt traffic police, and endure more rides through potholed dirt roads to coax recipes of poison cocktails from unwilling old men of the Kamba ethnic group. The curiosity is intense and unrelenting. I blame it on a primordial curse – The Human Spark!

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