It is usually assumed that ‘fire hardening’ the tips of spears, as practised by hunter–gatherers and early Homo spp., makes them harder and better suited for hunting. This suggestion was tested by subjecting coppiced poles of hazel to a fire-hardening process and comparing their mechanical properties to those of naturally seasoned poles. A Shore D hardness test showed that fire treatment slightly increased the hardness of the wood, but flexural and impact tests showed that it reduced the strength and work of fracture by 30% and 36%, respectively. These results suggest that though potentially slightly sharper and more durable, fire-hardened tips would actually be more likely to break off when used, as may have been the case with the earliest known wooden tool, the Clacton spear. Fire might first have been used to help sharpen the tips of spears, and fire-hardening would have been a mostly negative side effect, not its primary purpose.
- Received March 1, 2016.
- Accepted April 14, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
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