Annemieke Milks

Lethal Threshold: The Evolutionary Implications of Middle Pleistocene Weaponry

The origins and performance of ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ projectile technologies (e.g. hand-thrown vs. spear-thrown spears) are the focus of current debates on the subsistence strategies, and associated cognitive and physiological abilities of different species of Homo. A proper understanding of the performance characteristics of hand-delivered untipped wooden spears is essential to the debate on the behavioural comparisons between H. sapiens and earlier species of Homo. Inherent in this debate are assumptions about the inferiority of ‘simple’ weapon systems, based on estimates of how these technologies perform. Evaluating these assumptions is critical to understanding Middle Pleistocene hunting behaviours, as is identifying the point at which there is a clear archaeological signature of the use of weapons for interpersonal violence or predation. 

My key research questions are:

1. What are the lethality thresholds of simple wooden hand-delivered spear technologies as hunting weapons when used on large mammals?  

2. How do these weapon systems compare with existing experimental data on the effectiveness of better-researched lithic- or osseous-tipped, and ‘complex’ projectile technologies?

3. What does damage from untipped wooden hand-delivered spears on large mammals look like, particularly hunting lesions on bone, and what other processes might produce similar looking damage?

4. What do these data tell us about the hunting and social behaviours, potential for interpersonal violence, and cognitive capacities of earlier Homo vs. H. sapiens?​


Experimental work will take place collaborating with ballistics experts, using facilities at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. Experiments follow rigorous protocols deemed acceptable for military ballistics research, in order to provide benchmark data on ‘simple’ spear performance. The series of experiments involves replicas of archaeological examples, and elite javelin throwers and other experts. Actualistic research is addressing problems of equifinality for hunting lesions. 

Data on design, measurement, and impact damage will be collected by studying wooden and faunal artifacts from the Pleistocene. Ethnographic data plays a major research role as well, with a sample of ethnographic spears being studied in museum collections, as well as data from the literature on their use for hunting and for interpersonal violence. Data collected from experiments, archeological artefacts and ethnographic examples will be compared with previous published research. 

Funding organisation

  • AHRC


 Educational background

  • BM, Violin Performance, University of Michigan, 2000
  • MM, Violin Performance, Carnegie Mellon University, 2002
  • MSc, Palaeoanthropology and Palaeolithic Archaeology, UCL, 2010

Milks, A., Champion, S., Cowper, E., Pope, M., & Carr, D. (2016). Early spears as thrusting weapons: Isolating force and impact velocities in human performance trials. Jasrep, 10, 191–203.

Milks, A., Dinnis, R., & Pope, M. (2016). Morpho-Metric Variability of Early Gravettian Tanged “Font-Robert” Points, and Functional Implications. In R. Iovita & K. Sano (Eds.), Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Stone Age Weaponry (pp. 135–146). Cham, Switz: Springer.

Pope M., Dinnis R., Milks A., Toms P., Wells C. 2013. A Middle Palaeolithic to Early Upper Palaeolithic succession from an open air site at Beedings, West Sussex.Quaternary International.

  • Spear replica

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