Did Cavemen Play Darts?

by Dr John V. Day

In his book THE NEANDERTHAL QUESTION, Stan Gooch speculates that these early humans, halfway between us and apes, would “practice their running and throwing, and specifically compete with each other in these skills. Many of our present-day pastimes (darts, pool, billiards, all track and field athletics) probably derive their instinctive elements and psychological motivation from these times.”

Food from the hunting of animals contributed even more to our ancestors? diet when humans migrated northwards into Europe, where edible plants were less abundant yet huge herds of animals like reindeer and bison lived on the plains, especially during the Ice Ages. Early humans were using spears by at least 400,000 years ago, as suggested by the two six-foot spruce spears found in 1997 at Schöningen in Germany, and (because wood rots and destroys our evidence) probably long before that.

By the time our ancestors were living in Europe during the last of the Ice Ages (and now looking just like us, going by their bones), we find they had developed spear-throwers, the earliest known example coming from France around 14,000 years ago. A spear-thrower lengthens your arm, in effect, providing you with more leverage and greater power, and experiments with them have killed deer at 30 yards. This invention helped hunters: they could keep a safe distance from their prey and could hunt alone, not needing to surround an animal to spear it.

As for bows and arrows, the first direct evidence we have is either the 10,000 year-old wooden arrow-shafts from northern Germany, found at the camp-sites of reindeer hunters, or what look like stone arrow-heads from Spain, over 25,000 years old. (Bows, being made of wood and sinew or gut, will easily perish.) If you hunt with a bow you can remain hidden — that’s a big plus. And your arrow travels faster than a spear does, and hits with more force when animals are far away. With a bow and arrow you can kill your prey at over 80 yards.

These hunters over the last few million years, whether using rocks, spears, or bows and arrows, must have been males. Evolution has designed men to be good hunters. On average, they are taller and stronger than women, and faster runners, too, ideally built for chasing after wild animals which have a turn of speed. Out of 179 traditional societies across the world which even today hunt animals for food, in no less than 166 the hunting is done only by the men.

And according to psychologists men are on average better at “visuo- spatial” tests than women (who are better with words). This means that men tend to be good at analysing what they see – finding patterns, noticing movements, judging distances. Again, evolution has ensured that men possess this “visuo- spatial” ability — vital when confronting wild animals, judging their leaps and trying to avoid their snarling jaws. You wanted them for your evening meal, and maybe they had the same idea about you.

These days we are more likely to buy a McDonalds than to go out hunting gazelle or reindeer. Still, millions of years of hunting have impressed on us an enjoyment of aiming at targets. In spite of living in cities and working in factories and offices we still remain, in the words of anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, Ice Age hunters who are “fine-honed machines for the efficient pursuit of game”. That hunting by aimed throwing was crucial in human evolution, as the evolutionary psychologists Sue Taylor Parker and Kathleen Gibson point out, “is also suggested by the ubiquity of aimed throwing games among human males”.

Not without reason did Stan Gooch call these distant ancestors of ours, living millions of years ago, “early darts teams”.

© 2002 Dr. John V. Day

Thanks to Dr. Day for contributing this fascinating article to my website. I am more than happy to consider other articles for inclusion on the site, provided they make a contribution to our understanding of the history and development of the sport of darts. Please send any items to me via the ‘Contact’ page.

Cartoon by kind permission of David P Crane

© Patrick Chaplin 2007