The Evolution of the Human Capacity for “Killing at a Distance”: The Human Fossil Evidence for the Evolution of Projectile Weaponry

  • Steven E. Churchill
  • Jill A. Rhodes
Part of the Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology book series (VERT)

Recent analyses of MSA and Middle Paleolithic points suggest that true long-range projectile weaponry — most likely in the form of spearthrower-delivered darts — evolved in Africa sometime between 90–70 ky BP, and was part of the tool kit of modern humans who expanded out of Africa after this time. This possibility has important implications for our understanding of behavior change during the MSA, the evolution of modern human predatory behavior and subsistence strategies, and the nature of the competitive interactions that occurred between modern humans and the archaic humans they encountered on their diaspora from Africa. Research into the origins of projectile weapons can be informed by analyses of the skeletal remains of the prehistoric humans who made and used them, since habitual behavior patterns — especially biomechanically stressful actions like forceful throwing — can be imprinted on the skeleton through both genetic and epigenetic pathways. Previous analyses of humeral diaphyseal geometry in Neandertals and early modern Europeans concluded that habitual, forceful throwing is reflected in the fossil record only after 20 ky BP, suggesting a relatively late origin of projectile weaponry. In contrast, recent work on humeral torsion angles in these same groups reveals some evidence to suggest that throwing-based projectile weaponry was commonly used by the earliest modern Europeans. Other aspects of the skeleton, such as scapular glenoid fossa and ulnar supinator crest morphology, might contain a signature of habitual throwing, but have not yet been examined. Here we analyze variation in scapular and ulnar morphology within and between groups of fossil and recent humans relative to the question of the origins of projectile weaponry. Although the results are not clear-cut, the overall pattern of osteological indicators is consistent with the claim that projectile weapons arose in the African later MSA and moved into Europe in the hands of modern humans.


Paleoanthropology hominins functional morphology 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Basabe, J.M., 1966. El hūmero premusteriense de Lezetxiki (Guipūzcoa). Munibe 18, 13–31.Google Scholar
  2. Basedow, H., 1913. Notes on the natives of Bathurst Island, north Australia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain 43, 291–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bingham, P.M., 2000. Human evolution and human history: a complete theory. Evolutionary Anthropology 9, 248–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Breuil, H., 1912. Les subdivisions du paléolithique supérieur et leur signification. Comptes Rendus de la XIVeme Session, Congres Internationale d'Anthropologie, Archéologie et Préhistoire Genève 5–78.Google Scholar
  5. Brooks, A.S., Yellen, J.E., Nevell, L., Hartman, G., 2005. Projectile technologies of the African MSA: implications for modern human origins. In: Hovers, E., Kuhn, S. (Eds.), Transitions Before the Transition: Evolution and Stability in the Middle Paleolithic and Middle Stone Age. Kluwer, New York, pp. 233–255.Google Scholar
  6. Cattelain, P., 1989. Un crochet de propulseur solutréen de la grotte de Combe- Saunière 1 (Dordogne). Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française 86, 213–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Churchill, S.E., 1993. Weapon technology, prey size selection, and hunting methods in modern hunter-gatherers: implications for hunting in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. In: Peterkin, G.L., Bricker, H.M., Mellars, P.A. (Eds.), Hunting and Animal Exploitation in the Later Palaeolithic and Mesolithic of Europe. Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 4, 11–24.Google Scholar
  8. Churchill, S.E., 1994. Human upper body evolution in the Eurasian Later Pleistocene. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of New Mexico.Google Scholar
  9. Churchill, S.E., 1996. Particulate versus integrated evolution of the upper body in Late Pleistocene humans: a test of two models. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 100, 559–583.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Churchill, S.E., 2002. Of assegais and bayonets: reconstructing prehistoric spear use. Evolutionary Anthropology 11, 185–186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Churchill, S.E., Morris, A.G., 1998. Muscle marking morphology and labor intensity in prehistoric Khoisan foragers. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 8, 390–411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Churchill, S.E., Pearson, O.M., Grine, F.E., Trinkaus, E., Holliday, T.W., 1996a Morphological affinities of the proximal ulna from Klasies River Main Site: archaic or modern? Journal of Human Evolution 31 213–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Churchill, S.E., Rhodes, J.A., 2006. How strong were the Neandertals? Leverage and muscularity at the shoulder and elbow in Mousterian foragers. Periodicum Biologorum 108, 457–470.Google Scholar
  14. Churchill, S.E., Trinkaus, E., 1990. Neandertal scapular glenoid morphology. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 83, 147–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Churchill, S.E., Weaver, A.H., Niewoehner, W.A., 1996b. Late Pleistocene human technological and subsistence behavior: func tional interpretations of upper limb morphology. In: Bietti, A., Grimaldi, S. (Eds.), Reduction Processes (“Chaines Opératoires”) in the European Mousterian. Quaternaria Nova 6, 18–51.Google Scholar
  16. Crockett, H.C., Gross, L.B., Wilk, K.E., Schwartz, M.L., Reed, J., O'Mara, J., Reilly, M.T., Dugas, J.R., Meister, K., Lyman, S., Andrews, J.R., 2002. Osseous adaptation and range of motion at the glenohumeral joint in professional baseball pitchers. American Journal of Sports Medicine 30, 20–26.Google Scholar
  17. Field, A., 2000. Discovering Statistics Using SPSS for Windows. Sage Publications, London.Google Scholar
  18. Gainor, B.J., Piotrowski, G., Puhl, J., Allen, W.C., Hagen, R., 1980. The throw: biomechanics and acute injury. American Journal of Sports Medicine 8, 114–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Goodale, J.C., 1971. Tiwi Wives: A Study of the Women of Melville Island, North Australia. University of Washington Press, Seattle.Google Scholar
  20. Guthrie, R.D., 1983. Osseous projectile points: biological considerations affecting raw material selection and design among Palaeolithic and Palaeoindian people. In: Clutton-Brock, J., Grigson, C. (Eds.), Animals and Archaeology. Volume 1. Hunters and Their Prey. British Archaeological Reports, Oxford, pp. 273–294.Google Scholar
  21. Howell, S.M., Galinat, B.J., Renzi, A.J., Marone, P.J., 1988. Normal and abnormal mechanics of the glenohumeral joint in the horizontal plane. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery 70-A, 227–232.Google Scholar
  22. Hrdlička, A., 1930. Anthropological Survey in Alaska. 46th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1928–1929. Washington DC, pp. 19–374.Google Scholar
  23. Hrdlička, A., 1945. The Aleutian and Commander Islands and Their Inhabitants. Wistar Institute, Philadelphia.Google Scholar
  24. Hughes, S.S., 1998. Getting to the point: evolutionary change in prehistoric weaponry. Journal of Archeological Method and Theory 5, 345–408.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kelly, R., 1995. The Foraging Spectrum. Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.Google Scholar
  26. Kennedy, K.A.R., 1983. Morphological variations in ulnar supinator crests and fossae as identifying markers of occupational stress. Journal of Forensic Sciences 28, 871–876.Google Scholar
  27. Kennedy, K.A.R., 1989. Skeletal markers of occupational stress. In: Iscan, M.Y., Kennedy, K.A.R. (Eds.), Reconstruction of Life from the Skeleton. Alan R. Liss, New York, pp. 129–160.Google Scholar
  28. Kennedy, K.A.R., 2004. Slings and arrows of predaceous fortune: Asian evidence of prehistoric spear use. Evolutionary Anthropology 13, 127–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kortlandt, A., 2002. Neanderthal anatomy and the use of spears. Evolutionary Anthropology 11, 183–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Marlowe, F.W., 2005. Hunter-gatherers and human evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology 14, 54–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Matiegka, J., 1938. Homo predmostensis, Fosilni Clovek z Predmosti na Morave II. Nakladem Ceske Akademie Ved a Umeni, Prague.Google Scholar
  32. McBrearty, S., Brooks, A.S., 2000. The revolution that wasn't: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. Journal of Human Evolution 39, 453–563.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Meister, K., 2000. Injuries to the shoulder in the throwing athlete. Part one: biomechanics/pathophysiology/classification of injury. American Journal of Sports Medicine 28, 265–275.Google Scholar
  34. Miller, J.E., 1960. Javelin thrower's elbow. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery 42B, 788–792.Google Scholar
  35. Oakley, K.P., Andrews, P., Keeley, L.H., Clark, J.D., 1977. A reappraisal of the Clacton spearpoint. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 43, 13–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. O'Connell, J.F., 2006. How did modern humans displace Neanderthals? Insights from hunter-gatherer ethnography and archaeology. In: Conard, N.J. (Ed.), Neanderthals and Modern Humans Meet. Kerns, Tubingen, pp. 43–64.Google Scholar
  37. Osbahr, D.C., Cannon, D.L., Speer, K.P., 2002. Retroversion of the humerus in the throwing shoulder of college baseball pitchers. American Journal of Sports Medicine 30, 347–353.Google Scholar
  38. Perry, J., Glousman, R.E., 1995. Biomechanics of throwing. In: Nicholas, J.A., Hershman, E.B., Posner, M.A. (Eds.), The Upper Extremity in Sports Medicine. Mosby, St. Louis, pp. 725–750.Google Scholar
  39. Peterkin, G.L., Bricker, H.M., Mellars, P.A. (Eds.), 1993. Hunting and Animal Exploitation in the Later Palaeolithic and Mesolithic of Europe. Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 4.Google Scholar
  40. Peterson, J., 1998. The Natufian hunting conundrum: spears, atlatls, or bows? Musculoskeletal and armature evidence. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 8, 378–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Pieper, H.-G., 1998. Humeral torsion in the throwing arm of handball players. American Journal of Sports Medicine 26, 247–253.Google Scholar
  42. Reagan, K.M., Meister, K., Horodyski, M.B., Werner, D.W., Carruthers, C., Wilk, K., 2002. Humeral retroversion and its relationship to glenohumeral rotation in the shoulder of college baseball players. American Journal of Sports Medicine 30, 354–360.Google Scholar
  43. Rhodes, J.A., Churchill, S.E., 2009. Throwing in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic: inferences from an analysis of humeral retro-version. Journal of Human Evolution 56, 1–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Rieder, H., 2001. Erprobung der holzspeere von Schöningen (400 000 jahre) und folgerungen daraus. In: Wagner, G.A., Mania, D. (Eds.), Frühe Menschen in Mitteleuropa — Chronologie, Kultur, Umwelt, Aachen. Heidelberg.Google Scholar
  45. Rieder, H., 2003. Nachbau altsteinzeitlicher speere der groâe wurf der frühen jäger. Biologie in unserer Zeit 33, 156–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Ruff, C.B., Trinkaus, E., Holliday, T.W., 1997. Body mass and encephalization in Pleistocene Homo. Nature 387, 173–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Schmitt, D.O., Churchill, S.E., Hylander, W.L., 2003. Experimental evidence concerning spear use in Neandertals and early modern humans. Journal of Archaeological Science 30, 103–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Shea, J.J., 2003. Neandertals, competition, and the origin of modern human behavior in the Levant. Evolutionary Anthropology 12, 173–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Shea, J.J., 2006. The origins of lithic projectile point technology: evidence from Africa, the Levant, and Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 33, 823–846.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Shea, J.J., 2009. The impact of projectile weaponry on Late Pleistocene hominin evolution. In: Hublin, J.-J., Richards, M.P. (Eds.), The Evolution of Hominid Diets: Integrating Approaches to the Study of Paleolithic Subsistence. Springer, Dordrecht, pp. XXX–XXX.Google Scholar
  51. Shott, M.J., 1993. Spears, darts, and arrows: Late Woodland hunting techniques in the upper Ohio valley. American Antiquity 58, 425–443.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Soficaru, A., Dobos, A., Trinkaus, E., 2006. Early modern humans from the Peştera Muierii, Baia de Fier, Romania. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103, 17196–17201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Straus, L.G., 1995. The Upper Paleolithic of Europe: an overview. Evolutionary Anthropology 4, 4–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Thieme, H., 1997. Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 385, 807–810.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Thieme, H., 1999. Lower Palaeolithic throwing spears and other wooden implements from Schöningen, Germany. In: Ullrich, H. (Ed.), Hominid Evolution: Lifestyles and Strategies. Edition Archaea, Gelsenkirchen/Schwelm, pp. 383–395.Google Scholar
  56. Trinkaus, E., Churchill, S.E., 1988. Neandertal radial tuberosity orientation. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 75, 15–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Trinkaus, E., Churchill, S.E., 1999. Diaphyseal cross-sectional geometry of Near Eastern Middle Paleolithic humans: the humerus. Journal of Archaeological Science 26, 173–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Trinkaus, E., Churchill, S.E., Ruff, C.B., 1994. Postcranial robustic-ity in Homo. II: Humeral bilateral asymmetry and bone plasticity. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 93, 1–34.Google Scholar
  59. Tullos, H.S., King, J.W., 1973. Throwing mechanism in sports. Orthopedic Clinics of North America 4, 709–720.Google Scholar
  60. Villa, P., 2009. Lower and Middle Paleolithic faunal exploitation in Europe. In: Hublin, J.-J., Richards, M.P. (Eds.), The Evolution of Hominid Diets: Integrating Approaches to the Study of Paleolithic Subsistence. Springer, Dordrecht, pp. XXX–XXX.Google Scholar
  61. Wilmsen, E.N., 1974. Lindenmeier: A Pleistocene Hunting Society. Harper & Row, New York.Google Scholar
  62. Zarins, B., Andrews, J.R., Carson, W.G.J., 1985. Injuries to the Throwing Arm. W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven E. Churchill
    • 1
  • Jill A. Rhodes
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Evolutionary AnthropologyDuke University DurhamUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyBryn Mawr College 101 N. Merion Avenue Bryn MawrUSA

Personalised recommendations