Doc Todd and The MythBusters

The most recent episode of the Discovery Channel’s “The MythBusters” featured a question from two of my former profs at the University of Wyoming (only 1 of which they acknowledge): Todd Surovell (http://uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/SUROVELL/) and Nicole Waguespack (http://uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/nmwhomepage/)

Background: Projectile points are the most frequent archaeological find across North America and span the Paleoindian colonization through the modern era. Expert flintknappers like Bruce Bradley can produce a projectile point in a half hour, but in the prehistoric world this also requires acquisition of raw materials (flint/chert/etc) and curation of a variety of hafting, production, and sharpening equipment.

Alternatively, it takes only a couple of minutes to sharpen a stick, for which you only need a stick and a flake to produce.


Question: Do these little guys offer more penetration power than a sharpened stick? Or do they convey an advantage in terms of accuracy? Or do they just look cool?

Answer: Hosts Adam and Jamie found that in terms of penetration power and accuracy, a projectile point hafted to an arrow does not provide a significant advantage over a sharpened stick. The only noticeable differences (when firing an arrow through hide-covered ballistics gel shaped like a human for some reason) were a little more penetration (couple cm?) and a slightly larger slice through the hide.

Problems (the scientist in me):
They tested this question with one type of projectile point – nevermind the extreme amount of variability in p.p. forms, sizes, and the kind of animal it is used to kill. Also relevant is the variation in the kinds of wood found throughout the continent – clearly this will have an effect on the structural abilities of a stick to penetrate a hide.

Further, why are they shooting this thing through a piece of hide into ballistics gel? I’m wondering if projectile points do more damage because they are clearly able to penetrate bone.
Mammoth hunts probably involved days of tracking a slowly dying animal – among other things, penetration of the bone would increase the severity of the wound and heighten the stress and infection levels of the animal. Why didn’t they pull a Doc Frison and shoot these into some elephants – now that would be sweet.

Problems (the anthropologist in me):
Adam, of course, couldn’t help but dress like some sort of caveman, put on fake teeth and a wig, and act like an idiot. Ok, alright, I know this is a t.v. show made for the public. I can acknowledge that, but the fact that they are testing an issue regarding the use of technology made by clearly modern individuals and acting like some sort of Middle Paleolithic speechless Neandertal is both disrespectful and a misrepresentation of what it is we actually study as North American archaeologists.

And p.s., living peoples across the world use projectile points.

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6 thoughts on “Doc Todd and The MythBusters

  1. I too thought about the problems with the study. That’s a good point about the effect of a projectile point vs. sharpened stick on bone.When you talked about the “increase the severity of the wound and heighten the stress and infection levels of the animal”, it made me think about something I have learned recently in the foodservice industry: We want the animal to die as quickly and as painlessly as possible for the best taste. When the animal is in a lot of stress, there are a lot of bad flavors from enzymes that are released into the muscles. So my question is; What do projectile-hurling hunters think about taste?

  2. don’t even get me started on the problems with that episode. jeez. and what about bone projectiles? argh.i’m guessing that most prehistoric people didn’t really consider taste something that they had any control over, or at least to that degree. kind of like the idea of comfort, it’s probably something that has really only emerged in the past few hundred years. of course, i have no evidence whatsoever to back that up.

  3. “Darkness marched throughout the forest, and the hunters were tired. Heavy rains had long since covered the tracks of the beast they had wounded, and now, amidst the aphotic night – for the upper branches denied them what light the stars afforded – they were forced to pursue their prize by sound. It was the yelp that filled the hunter’s hearts with relief. They followed its whimpering to the edge of a dried riverbed, and there it lay, bleeding and helpless. Scores of cuts and broken shafts adorned its side. It stared at its killers for a quiet moment before closing its eyes. The hunters thanked the beast for its life and praised its tenacity. The exploits were shared with the rest of the tribe over a large, crackling fire. Everyone ate well that night.I suspect the utilitarian nature of Paleoindians would render this debate moot. Sharpened sticks and clovis points alike were used, and both with equal practicality. That being said, stones and bones, antlers and ivory – their importance often boasts a profundity far beyond survival. An excellent example comes from the Inuit. Ivory and bone not only afford them deadly projectile points and keen blades, but sewing needles, buttons, and exquisite sculptures as well.X

  4. I was wondering if the barb-like projectile would stick better. If the spear stayed in the animal there would be more damage done rather than if it just fell out. I guess I just think that if the spear stayed in the animal the whole weight of that spear would be jiggling around, causing more tearing and damage. It would be more effective at causing damage, especially with blade-like qualities, than a sharpened tip that is only effective at penetration. This would probably hurt and kill faster.

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