We all know that humans have one big natural advantage in the natural world: (relatively) high intelligence. Yet, perhaps just as important and arguably a major factor in our evolution, is an ability we take for granted—the ability to throw shit at each other with relative accuracy.
Even our fellow primates, despite exhibiting a general ability to throw things, or to predict the trajectory of an object thrown in their direction, lack the anatomy and full suite of brain hardware to do it like we do it. In fact, it’s more akin to a learned social behavior than a built-in skill set for other apes. When I was in preschool, my first bully nailed me in the forehead with a wooden block to such great effect that I had a lump on my head for a week. This anecdote demonstrates not only the human predilection for accurate throwing, but another trait we take for granted—our extra-large skulls.
But, I digress. We so take for granted our skills at throwing that we’ve been trying to make ourselves throw better by way of invention for, well, longer than our species can remember. The ubiquitous bow and arrow went so far as to eliminate the need for throwing at all, instead delegating power generation to the potential energy created by bending a bow of wood. But bows take some ingenuity and a bit of, time, skill, and material to make. What other tools did humans come up with, either prior to learning of the bow, concurrently, or thereafter? These throwing devices also worked well.
Here are five ancient tools (weapons) that humans have used and still use to lob menacing projectiles at other living things, with the intention of doing grievous bodily harm. (So, spitwads will not be included here.)
Atlatl, Woomera, and Other Spear-Type Weapons
If you’ve got any experience with dog toys, then you might be familiar with those “ChuckIt” sticks—curved sticks with a seat at the end for couching a ball. Aside from letting you pick up mucus-slathered tennis balls without having to bend over or touch the ball, the stick acts as an extension of your arm, making it a longer lever for throwing the ball. With a bit of practice, this arm extender can increase the velocity of the ball.
That’s basically what an atlatl, or woomera (among many other names, depending on the cultures that built them) is: a stick, with a notch for a throwing spear, instead of a ball. Basically, it’s a spear-throwing aid. The extremely basic science here is that adding the lever increases the length of time the thrower is exerting force on the projectile (spear or dirty tennis ball), thereby increasing the object’s peak velocity.
As for those names, the atlatl comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) terminology, while woomera is the variant created by the Australian Aboriginal peoples. The Ancient Greeks had their own take, called the amentum, which used a leather strap, rather than a stick, to extend the arm and put spin on a thrown javelin.
Fustibale (AKA the Staff Sling)
The fustibalus is based on the same principle as with the atlatl—increase the length of the lever used to generate power, and you can throw an object farther. In this case, that object is a rock. In fact, the fustibalus is basically a handheld trebuchet in its design and purpose: to hurl beefy stones, couched in a sling, by way of a lever.
Now, the fustibalus is handheld, the size of a staff, with a sling attached to the end, so you won’t be using it to whip boulders at barbarian hordes (looking at you, France). But rocks that are maybe a bit too heavy to throw with your arm alone? Well, sure!
How’s it work? Well, just like a sling—which is to say that there’s a length of cord with a pouch in the center to hold the projectile. One end of the cord is looped, to secure it to your finger, while the other is knotted. There are a number of techniques, but the sling works by spinning the projectile to generate power, then releasing the knotted end of the rope at the right point during a throwing motion. Doing so releases the projectile from the pouch, enabling it to continue on its trajectory and hopefully kill something.
The fustibalus does for slings what the atlatl did for throwing: it adds a long stick to the mechanism, thereby increasing leverage and multiplying power generation. Rather than using a finger loop and a knot, one end of the sling is affixed to the the fustibalus staff a little ways from the tip, while the other is looped over a nail at the end, or beaded and placed in a notch so that it stays in place while you’re spinning it around, but releases once the staff is cast straight out, like a fishing rod.
Fustibale were used by medieval folk as well as the Ancients, concurrently with bows and arrows. While the bow has some clear advantages, fustibale were super easy to construct, ammo was free (rocks), and didn’t require the high level of investment needed for kitting your troops out for archery.
Roman Whistlin’ Stones
Speaking of the Ancients slinging rocks, the Romans appear to devised an early bit of psychological weaponry—at least for one battle at Burnswark Hill in southwestern Scotland, about 1,800 years ago.
We’ve covered slings (the delivery device), but sling bullets were an innovation. The stones found at the Scottish battle site were each about one ounce, and had been drilled with a 5-millimeter hole.
The result was that the stones would whistle or buzz sharply while in flight. According to archaeologists, the noise turned these stones into terror weapons. The stones, which would normally have flown in relative silence, instead would be screaming overhead.
Further, the whistling stones were smaller than normal sling stones, so the theory is that a number of them could be slung in each pouch, creating a noisy scatter-gun effect.
While just 20 percent of the stones found at the battle site were drilled with whistle holes, this still represents a great deal of effort to lay out on little stones meant to be expended quickly—meaning that sowing terror among enemy ranks was a priority for these Roman Imperials.
When Richard Connell published The Most Dangerous Game in 1924, the thesis of his short story was that man was the most dangerous game of all. He was right at the time, but that all changed when lawn darts became all the rage in the 1980s, right up until they were banned in 1988 (and then again in 1997, just to make sure they were dead).
Why? Because there is no such thing as “lawn darts.” There are only plumbatae. Plumbatae were Roman war darts, made from an iron shaft with a lead weight at the rear, as well as a wooden shaft with feather fletching.
Plumbatae could have been thrown overhead or lobbed underhand into enemy ranks, depending on the tactics being used. There’s really not that much more to say about how you use them. The reason they were banned is because the darts killed or injured people by accident. So, from a warfare perspective, that’s pretty effective, so long as you don’t throw them in the wrong direction.
The other side of that coin is that they aren’t precision weapons, which was fine: Roman legions would have typically thrown them, en masse, into enemy ranks, like massive spiked hailstones.
Anyway, if you still have a set of lawn darts: destroy them. It’s the law.
Boomerangs, Hopi Rabbit Sticks, and Other Throwing Sticks
If you’re looking for a missile on a budget, boy, you could sure do worse than a throwing stick. Given the simplicity of the idea—the sheer intuitiveness of chucking a weighty stick at a thing you want to kill and eat—it’s pretty ubiquitous.
The most familiar example is the Aboriginal Australian boomerang, which is actually part of an extremely broad class of throwing sticks, the vast majority of which aren’t meant to return to the thrower. They were also present in prehistoric Europe, including modern-day Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland, as well as places like Egypt and the aforementioned Australia.
Throwing sticks can feature two or more blades, various curved shapes, and are thrown such that they rotate around their center of gravity. With some practice and a little oomph, a good throwing stick can reach a target up to 200 meters away, and deliver enough force to break a large mammal’s legs—so, they’re good for hunting animals or fighting other people.
Throwing sticks, depending on design, can be versatile tools, as well. While still in the hand, they serve as clubs, digging implements, etc.
Also, they weren’t always made from wood. The oldest identified throwing stick we have on record is a piece of mammoth ivory from the Paleolithic era. Of course, these objects are biodegradable and so simple as to be difficult to identify. But, to my mind, these are characteristics of great early human engineering. Throwing sticks require minimum effort, provide maximum results, and they make a great cheap gift. (Remember, Father’s Day is in June!)