Experimental Evidence of Spear-thrower Usage in the Late Upper Palaeolithic (Upper Magdalenian) from the Isturitz Cave Site, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France

  • Jean-Marc Pétillon National Centre of Scientific Research, France, laboratoire TRACES, the University of Toulouse Jean-Jaurès https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4123-2361
  • Pierre Cattelain The Centre of Study and Archaeological Documentation of the Museum Malgré-Tout, the Centre of Archaeological Research and Heritage of the University of Bruxelles, the Prehistoric Service of the University of Liège https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1829-4417
Keywords: antler industry, bow, experimental archaeology, Isturitz, Magdalenian, spear-thrower, Upper Palaeolithic


Dating the appearance of the spear-thrower and the bow among Paleolithic hunter-gatherers has long been an important concern for prehistoric research. In Western Europe, the direct evidence (antler spear-thrower “hooks” from the Middle Magdalenian ca. 19-16 cal ka BP, and pine arrows from the Ahrensburgian ca. 12-11.5 cal ka BP) suggests that the spear-thrower was replaced, or at least largely superseded, by the bow around the end of the Magdalenian period, but the nature and evolution of the weapons used at the transitional period remains unclear. Unlike point morphometry, the comparative study of the points’ fracture patterns offers interesting perspectives for the identification of the projectile delivery mode; but it was rarely applied, especially to points from that period. Projectile experiments carried out in the Cedarc / Musée du Malgré-Tout in the early 2000s bring new data into this debate. Both spear-thrower and bow were used in conditions replicating Palaeolithic hunting, and the projectiles were equipped with experimental copies of antler fork-based points from the Upper Magdalenian (ca. 16-14 cal ka BP) of the Isturitz cave site. After impact, several experimental specimens show proximal fractures characteristic of spear-thrower use, likely due to the much greater size and mass of the spears compared to the arrows, as well as their more irregular trajectory. Similar fractures are found on many of the archaeological specimens: these points were thus used as spearheads rather than arrowheads. The radiocarbon dating of one antler spear-thrower from Isturitz confirms this association. However, the complementary usage of spear-throwers made of perishable materials is plausible, and the concomitant existence of the bow cannot be ruled out.

The 2003 experiment was partly funded by the UMR 7041 ArScAn laboratory (Ethnologie préhistorique department) and the university Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne.


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