It’s a paradox that the more humans have evolved and advanced, the better we’ve become at killing one another.
Even in an age where we can inflict impersonal mass destruction with the push of a button, humans are still committed to producing newer and deadlier handheld weapons for hunting, personal protection, and, alas, for waging war.
But when did we first start implementing these deadly tools? What were some of the most important advances in weapon development? Sadly, there are few precise answers. As we’ll see, the invention and perfection of weapons has a decidedly scattered history, with various cultures creating similar death-dealing devices at different times across a broad span of history. Like war itself, tracking the evolution of weapons is a messy and inexact business. Here, then, is our best shot at providing a broad overview of what researchers know about the evolution of humanity’s weapons of war.
Sticks and Stones
We’ll probably never pin down precisely when early humans first used weapons beyond their own hands, feet, and teeth. Homo sapiens and even earlier hominins have been fashioning tools of one kind or another for a very long time. Some of the earliest tools discovered date back 3.3 million years (before us, in other words), and they were very basic stone implements.
What Was the First Weapon Ever Made?
Likewise, the earliest weapons that humans made would have been the simplest: a large stick or stone that we could use to beat or throw at something (or someone). Soon after, it must have occurred to us to develop ways to sharpen these objects into rudimentary yet deadly spears or edged stones. They would have been as equally good for killing prey as for dispatching rivals and enemies.
How Did Early Humans Make Axes?
Combining those two ingredients — wood and rock — was likely the next step, yielding deadlier, more durable spears or stone axes, for example. It all sounds so obvious from a modern perspective, but making and improving upon these basic weapons — or tools of any kind — is a trick that very few species on the planet have managed, certainly not to the degree that humans have mastered it.
And make no mistake: We needed to master the art of weapon-making. Lacking the raw strength, sharp teeth, and claws of other hunters in the animal kingdom, humanity’s ascent as a species depended in large part upon our ability to invent more effective ways to kill things. Going from sticks and stones to simple-edged weapons gave us better success as hunters. Successive weapon upgrades allowed us to outcompete other hominin species — and also made us more efficient at killing one another as disputes inevitably arose over territory, resources, or other considerations.
Swords, Spears, and Steel
Spears remain among the oldest known handheld weapons, dating back at least 500,000 years. Clubs, stone hammers, and short stone blades would also have been part of the early human arsenal.
What Tools Were Used in the Bronze Age?
But it was the development of metalworking, during the aptly named Bronze Age, that allowed us to make real advances in hardy handheld weapons that could keep an edge. The first metal swords, appearing around 3300 B.C.E., were made with the first alloys —using copper and other metals — which were far stronger than rocks and sticks. But they were still prone to bending and breaking.
What Tools Were Used in the Iron Age?
By 1200 B.C.E., however, we had entered the Iron Age, and it was during this period that we developed the first steel swords, which were generally longer, sharper, and much more durable than previous metal blades. And, of course, as we became more adept at working with it, steel would play an even more profound role in the development of the deadliest handheld weapons of all.
Slings and Shafts
Killing from a distance has been a critical driving force in weapon innovation for almost as long as hominins have been making weapons.
Why Did Early Humans Use Throwing Weapons?
Throwing something, even a simple spear or stone, is, after all, a more efficient and prudent way to attack prey or an opponent than close-quarter combat, which naturally carries a greater risk of personal injury. Ranged weapons were a great innovation for us. Using them was so profoundly successful that much of the evolution of weapons could fairly be described as a relentless obsession to find better ways of hurling projectiles harder, farther, faster, and more accurately at a luckless target.
When Were the First Ranged Weapons?
Some of the oldest such throwing weapons known to exist date to about 300,000 years ago. They were simple sharpened throwing sticks believed to be made by a sister species, Homo heidelbergensis. Over time and across cultures, spears generally started to become longer, thinner, and lighter. Although we didn’t have the word aerodynamics back then, we certainly understood that a shaft with such qualities could be thrown farther and with truer aim than a mere stone-tipped branch.
When Did Early Humans First Use Spears?
At some point — about 21,000 years ago, but perhaps twice as long ago as that — it occurred to a variety of Stone-Age weapons geniuses that a short and slender spear could be nestled in the hollow of a handheld device made of stick or bone. With a little bit of practice, one could hurl a shaft an impressive distance. These spear-throwers, some of the earliest two-part ranged devices ever made, had different styles and were known by different names — atlatl and woomera, to name just two. For the cultures that used them, they were a major leap forward in weapons technology.
When Did Early Humans First Use Slings?
Sticks weren’t the only things getting a two-part power boost — stones did, too. Starting around 10,000 B.C.E. (although possibly much earlier), humans added a new component to their weapon designs. Working with animal hide and sinew or fibrous twine, we developed the first slings. Like the atlatl, mastering the sling took practice and technique, but when spun and released with expertise, a sling could hurl a small rock a distance of several hundred yards at speeds estimated to be anywhere from 60 to 100 miles per hour and with bone-crushing force.
Slings were great for stunning or killing small and fast game, and they weren’t too shabby at putting down human opponents either. Never mind the legend of David and Goliath; the Romans were particularly deadly with this weapon. Other civilizations also saw the value of slingers, and they were an important component of many ancient armies.
Read More: Did Spear-Throwing Humans Kill Neanderthals?
Bows and Arrows
While slings and shaft-throwers were important ranged weapons for early humans, they were eventually surpassed by the bow and arrow.
When Did Humans First Use Bow and Arrows?
Developed independently by many different cultures across the planet, with early examples dating as far back as 64,000 years, the bow and arrow seem like another one of those advances in war weapons that was inevitable, although it took several generations to perfect and not every culture advanced this killing tool to its fullest potential.
Who Used Ancient Bows?
The best fashioners and practitioners of archery weapons were those who developed the strongest bows, like the Scythians, whose recurve bows boasted a compact structure that made them easy to shoot from horseback while efficiently transferring greater energy and speed to an arrow than traditional longbows.
That said, students of the longbow, for which the medieval English were justifiably famous, also developed archery skills and technology sufficient to make them feared among their enemies since arrows from such bows were reputed to be able to puncture and kill even armored opponents.
Read More: Who Were the Ancient Scythians?
Guns and Ammo
While swords, spears, bows, and the like would still be in common use for decades to come, they would never again be the go-to weapons for us that guns would be, once humans started developing reliable firearms.
When Was Gunpowder Invented?
Although it’s technology that has been in use for hundreds of years, gunpowder — and more specifically, the development of personal firearms starting around the mid-14th century — marks a dividing line between the development of ancient and modern weapons.
When Was the First Gun Made?
Made first from bamboo as early as the 9th or 10th century and built to shoot spears, more formidable firearms would later be fashioned with metal: bronze, then iron and steel, and now with a variety of durable components (including carbon fiber, plastic, and even ceramics). Guns still occupy the apex position as one of the deadliest and most effective personal weapons available to the average human.
That’s not to say that the discovery of gunpowder and metalworking automatically advanced weapons development. The knowledge of chemistry and metallurgy needed to construct effective, reliable firearms (that wouldn’t explode in the shooter’s face) took many generations.
But as any casual review of the last 700-or-so years of warfare would reveal, humankind eventually mastered that knowledge, for better and for worse.
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