The performance of heat-treated silcrete backed pieces in actualistic and controlled complex projectile experiments

Benjamin J. Schoville, Jayne Wilkins, Terrence Ritzman, Simen Oestmo, Kyle S. Brown

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


The origins of complex projectile weaponry provides insight into cultural and biological changes associated with the origins and spread of modern human populations. Middle Stone Age backed pieces are often thought to be components of such armaments, however our limited understanding of their functional characteristics as projectiles precludes understanding the adaptive problems they may have solved. Despite acknowledgment of raw material differences and intra-assemblage variability, whether variability in backed piece form reflects functional, economic, or stylistic variation has a paucity of empirical support. Here, the functional differences in backed piece form (size and shape) while hafted transversely and obliquely as high-velocity complex projectile armatures are examined. If there are performance tradeoffs simply in how backed pieces are arranged at the end of armaments that can influence effectiveness, then identifying the archaeological arrangement can provide insight into what variables were being prioritized in prehistoric technological systems. How variation in backed piece size, elongation, and hafting arrangement influences complex projectile performance is tested using experimental and actualistic projectile replications with a calibrated crossbow against animal and ballistics gelatin targets. The results of this study show that, within the size and shape variation of silcrete backed pieces examined, tool form plays a relatively limited role in their performance as projectile armatures. However, hafting orientation has very different performance characteristics for complex projectiles shot at ballistics gelatin compared to animal targets. We demonstrate that transversely hafted tools have more lethal internal wounds, but obliquely hafted backed pieces have greater puncture reliability. These functional differences represent different technological design emphasis: transversely hafted tools create large, deep wounds, while obliquely hafted arrows and darts create a puncture more reliably. Although obliquely hafted armaments cause less internal trauma, they are more likely to penetrate the hide of ungulate prey. Variability in MSA hunting tactics may have played a role in the design of weapon systems to optimize these performance tradeoffs. Despite similarities in shape with ethno-historic technologies, based on these results, MSA-sized backed pieces hafted as projectile armatures were unlikely to have been used with small, low-powered bows - but would have been lethal with a high-velocity delivery system.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)302-317
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
StatePublished - Aug 2017


  • Ballistics
  • Complex technology
  • Experimental archaeology
  • Howiesons Poort
  • Microlithic
  • Modern human behavior
  • Projectile weapons
  • Technological evolution


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