Reconstructing an Ancient Lethal Weapon
Wood then tested how well each point could penetrate and damage two different targets: blocks of ballistic gelatin (a clear synthetic gelatin meant to mimic animal muscle tissue) and a fresh reindeer carcass, purchased from a local farm. Wood conducted her trials over seven hours on a December day, with an average outdoor temperature of minus 17 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Wood's field trial, the composite microblade points were more effective than simple stone or bone on smaller prey, showing the greatest versatility and ability to cause incapacitating damage no matter where they struck the animal's body. But the stone and bone points had their own strengths: Bone points penetrated deeply but created narrower wounds, suggesting their potential for puncturing and stunning larger prey (such as bison or mammoth); the stone points could have cut wider wounds, especially on large prey (moose or bison), resulting in a quicker kill.
A bison. ( Mark Burnett )
Wood said the findings show that hunters during this period were sophisticated enough to recognize the best point to use, and when. Hunters worked in groups; they needed to complete successful hunts, in the least amount of time, and avoid risk to themselves.
"We have shown how each point has its own performance strengths," she said. Bone points punctured effectively, flaked stone created a greater incision, and the microblade was best for lacerated wounds. "It has to do with the animal itself; animals react differently to different wounds. And it would have been important to these nomadic hunters to bring the animal down efficiently. They were hunting for food."
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Wound ballistics on a reindeer. ( J. Wood & B. Fitzhugh )
Weapon use can shed light on the movement of people and animals as humans spread across the globe and how ecosystems changed before, during and after the ice ages.
"The findings of our paper have relevance to the understanding of ballistic properties affecting hunting success anywhere in the world people lived during the 99 percent of human history that falls between the invention of stone tools more than 3 million years ago in Africa and the origins of agriculture," Fitzhugh said.
It could also inform debates on whether human hunting practices directly led to the extinction of some species. The team's findings and other research show that our ancestors were thinking about effectiveness and efficiency, Wood said, which may have influenced which animals they targeted. An animal that was easier to kill may have been targeted more often, which could, along with changing climates, explain why animals such as the horse disappeared from the Arctic. A shot to the lung was lethal for early equines, Wood said, but a caribou could keep going.
The skull of a horse. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
"I see this line of research as looking at the capacity of the human brain to come up with innovations that ultimately changed the course of human history," she said. "This reveals the human capacity to invent in extreme circumstances, to figure out a need and a way to meet that need that made it easier to eat and minimized the risk."
Upon completion of the experiment, the bones were sterilized for future study of projectile impact marks.
Top image: Obsidian projectile point sourced to Batza Tena, Alaska. (Andy Tremayne/ National Park Service )
Janice Wood, Ben Fitzhugh. Wound ballistics: The prey specific implications of penetrating trauma injuries from osseous, flaked stone, and composite inset microblade projectiles during the Pleistocene/Holocene transition, Alaska U.S.A.. Journal of Archaeological Science , 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2017.10.006