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A Stone Age spear: 250,000 years ago

An elephant dies, in what is now Germany. It has between its ribs a shaft of yew. The point has penetrated the elephant's hide because it is hardened, by heating in a fire. It is a spear, dating from the Lower Palaeolithic era - the earliest human weapon to have been discovered.

As soon as humans separate from the apes and begin to walk on two feet, they no doubt hurl sticks and stones at each other. Equally a wooden branch or a chunk of rock is a natural tool for bludgeoning an animal to death. But such weapons are used as they are found. A sharpened spear - useful for throwing or prodding, in war or the hunt - is in a different category. The long story of the arms race begins.

The arms race: from 250,000 years ago

There are two obvious areas in which progress can be made in the improvement of primitive weapons, or flint technology. One is the sharpness of the point of a missile, increasing the damage done when it reaches the target. The other is the force with which it can be propelled, extending its range and impact.

Stone Age man discovers that a sharp flint can be attached to the end of a spear, or else can be set at right angles into a wooden handle to be used with a chopping motion. One such point has been found embedded in the skull of a bear, which came to a violent end about 100,000 years ago in the Mediterranean region (near what is now Trieste).

Stone Age man also finds ways of increasing the power of a human arm. The most obvious is by extending its effective length. This is the principle of the sling for throwing a stone. It is impossible to know when the sling was first used (made of vegetable fibres or animal skin, it will not survive for the archaeologist), but its power is attested in the biblical story of David and Goliath. Slingers play an important role in warfare throughout ancient history. Spear-throwing devices, known from about 14,000 years ago, are more sophisticated weapons of the same kind.

But the greatest advance in projecting a missile is achieved with the bow.

The bow and arrow: from 15,000 years ago

The sudden release of stored energy, when a forcibly bent strip of wood is allowed to snap back into its natural shape, is more rapid and therefore more powerful than any impulse of which human muscles are capable - yet human muscles, at a slower rate, have the strength to bend the strip of wood.

The principle of the bow is discovered about 15,000 years ago. Bows and arrows feature from that time, no doubt both in hunting and warfare, in the regions of north Africa and southern Europe. The wood is usually ewe or elm. Stone Age technology is capable of producing sharp flint points for the arrows, often with barbs to secure them in the victim's flesh.

The impact of metal: from 7000 BC

Flint can be shaped into a blade, but only a fairly short one - a dagger rather than a sword. The next development in man's armoury must await a major technological revolution, the working of metal. Not until the introduction of artillery, in the 14th century AD, will there be another change of comparable significance in the story of warfare.

Copper, the first metal to be adapted to human purposes (from about 7000 BC), is too soft to be of much benefit in combat. Knives and sickles for practical use in the village are the typical copper implements, though battle axes and even helmets of copper are known. But the discovery of bronze, in about 2800 BC, transforms the situation.

Bronze is sufficiently rigid to form an effective sword blade; it will take a sharp edge; and, a matter of great importance with such a precious commodity, it can be reused.

Bronze implements are made by casting. If a sword shatters, the pieces will be melted and used again. Archaeologists have unearthed early hoards of bronze weapons and tools including lumps of shapeless Bronze, melted down and stored for future casting. And casting solves what has been one of the basic difficulties of weapon manufacture in Stone Age technology - how to fit the sharp part to the handle.

The casters of bronze can make spear points with a hollow projection, into which the wooden shaft of the spear will fit snugly and securely. Sword and dagger can be produced with a projecting spike or haft, round which a hilt can be built up in a suitable substance for the warrior to grip. Axes will come from the mould with a hole already in place for the handle.

For small objects, such as spear points and axe heads, this is a very flexible technology. Weapons can be made wherever a small furnace can be set up, to bake the clay moulds and melt the bronze alloy.

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