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Reign of Fire
A Man Question on Primitive Weapon Evolution from Mathew

“James, I am designing and running a role playing game in a primitive setting—a lost world type thing—and was wondering what you would mark as the landmark stages in Man’s capacity to wage war on the environment and other humans. What Are the Stages of Primitive Combat Evolution?”


Mathew, the dates I’m giving below cannot be known with certainty, and can only be regarded as staging markers. For one thing, our physical evidence is random, and the resulting dates are most likely not indicative of the innovative path. It is most important to note the acceleration of innovation. By the end of the ancient process humans are in place to rapidly accelerate as destroyers. As for concepts, the use of fire and the use of the atomic bomb are as closely linked as the sling stone and the bullet.

The baseline assumption here is that Man, is not Man, until he picks up a tool and beats the feline off of, or shanks the canine out of, some predator. Stones, sticks and bones were certainly used in raw unmodified form for some time. I pick stones first, as they are more commonly effective without any modifications, than are bones or a stick.

The following dates are Years Before Present.

Primitive Hominid Innovations

1. 3.3 millions YBP: stone hand axe

2. 2.5 million YBP: stone knife, a byproduct of hand axe manufacture

Early Modern Human Innovations

3. 900,000 YBP: dugout canoes, homo erectus

4. 500,000 – 300,000 YBP: stone spear points, homo hieldelburgensis & Neanderthal [robust European types] this is dependent on knife [the point] and hand axe technology for haft construction

5. 400,000 YBP: Fire, more widespread than stone hafting technology, and of use for hardening wooden spear points

Modern Human

Note that at 75,000 years ago the Bottleneck Event, or Toba Super Eruption, wiped out most modern humans in Africa, leaving the most adaptable to hatch a plot to escape the African Habitation Zone, which was a good incubator for humanity, but a stifling one as well. Crossing the Sahara without camels or cars was no joke. I suspect that the use of the spear-thrower and sling converged to generate the bow and arrow. However, our evidence does not support this.

6. 64,000 YBP: bow and arrow, probably by the copper skinned ancestors of the now mostly extinct bushmen, who oppressed the blacks for tens of thousands of years before Malaysian mariners introduced iron and yams at #12.

7. 40-30,000 YBP: spear-thrower, although I’m betting that around 70,000 BP it was in use along with the sling, which led to #6 above, although there is no archeological evidence for this that I know of.

8. 10,000 YBP: grain-based agriculture, resulting in food storage methods to keep warriors fed from centralized locations on previous year’s surpluses. Grain-based agriculture enables the growth of state systems that henceforth act as macroparasitic organisms, even as the domestication of animals associated with grain-based agriculture generates the microparasitic suite of human pathogens that will one day extinguish most human cultural and genetic variation when sailing technology finally reunites us.

9. 8,500 YBP: metal use

10. 6,000 YBP: domestication of the horse

11. 5,000 YBP: the sail, which could have been invented around the time of the bow and arrow, but for which we have no evidence. I do like it as part of a cordage suite of technology that encompasses the bow and the tent circa 60,000 YBP.

Note that the last two innovations are methods of transport.


Pretty much everything is in place for Man’s wicked toolkit, culminating in the conquest of the planet with sailing technology and fire-powered metal weapons. I don’t rank the stirrup as important to conflict evolution on this scale. Also, steel was inevitable as soon as the first copper knife bent on some hard-ass in 8,500 BP so is not treated as a primary innovation, but part of the process that was ignited with the rapid accumulation of means between 10,000 and 5,000 BP, which represents on the 3 million plus year chart, a single outburst of lethal innovation. Overall, Man’s conquest of Nature with stone and fire refigured the State’s conquest of Man with steel and gunpowder.

#12: An honorable mention is in order for the cultivation of the yam and the introduction of iron smelting technology to the hitherto dimwitted and much hunted blacks of Africa, who had suffered at the hands of those little clay-skin men with their bows and arrows for tens of thousands of years, and would now turn the tide of genocidal predation on their rivals.

From here on out the sudden nature of the introduction of one technology in the hands of a culture better suited to employ it, at the expense of their neighbors, would drive combat history. For instance, yam cultivation permitted large scale iron working by virtue of the extra calories produced in a fixed location, enabling blacks to increase their numbers enough to soak up arrow-inflicted casualties while they closed the distance and came to grips with their elusive enemies with iron weapons. This caused an absolute redistribution of capoid/congoid population throughout the Sub-Sahara, with neither group having much luck against the Caucasiods to the north.

The dynamics of the black & tan feud were essentially the same as the white & red war across the Atlantic.

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