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A spear is a pole weapon consisting of a shaft, usually of wood, with a sharpened head. The head may be simply the sharpened end of the shaft itself, as is the case with bamboo spears, or it may be of another material fastened to the shaft, such as obsidian, iron or bronze. The most common design is of a metal spearhead, shaped like a triangle or a leaf.
Spears were one of the most common personal weapons from the Stone Age until the advent of firearms. They may be seen as the ancestor of such weapons as the lance, the halberd, the naginata and the pike. One of the earliest weapons fashioned by human beings and their ancestors, it is still used for hunting and fishing, and its influences can still be seen in contemporary military arsenals as the rifle-mounted bayonet.
Spears can be used as both melee and ballistic weapons. Spears used primarily for thrusting may be used with either one or two hands and tend to have heavier and sturdier designs than those intended exclusively for throwing. Those designed for throwing, often referred to as javelins tend to be lighter and have a more streamlined head, and can be thrown either by hand or with the assistance of a spear thrower such as the atalatl or woomera.
Spear manufacture and use is also practiced by the Pan troglodytes verus subspecies of the Common Chimpanzee. Chimpanzees near Kédougou, Senegal were observed to create spears by breaking straight limbs off of trees, stripping them of their bark and side branches, and sharpening one end with their teeth. They then used the weapons to hunt galagos sleeping in hollows.. Orangutans have also used spears to fish after observing humans fishing in a similar manner.
Archeological evidence documents that wooden spears were used for hunting at least 400,000 years ago. However, wood does not preserve well. Craig Stanford, a primatologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, has suggested that the discovery of spear use by chimpanzees probably means that early humans used wooden spears as well, perhaps five million years ago.
Neanderthals were constructing stone spear heads from as early as 300,000 BP. By 250,000 years ago wooden spears were made with fire-hardened points. From 200,000 BP Middle Paleolithic humans began to make complex stone blades which were used as spear heads. At these times there was still a clear difference between spears designed to be thrown and those designed to be used in hand to hand combat.
Short one handed spears used with a shield were used by the earliest Bronze Age cultures for either single combat or in large formations. This tradition continued from the first Mesopotamian cultures through the Egyptian dynasties to the Ancient Greek city states. The Greek doru was used in large battle formations, called phalanges (sg. phalanx), to maximize its effectiveness. Both Phillip of Macedon and Alexander the Great continued this tradition using the very long two handed Sarissa to great effect. The use of the spear with two hands dropped out of European fashion from the Roman period until development of the Pike in the Middle Ages. The Roman legions contained soldiers who used the shield and spear, known as the Triarii, and originally the Principes were armed with a short spear called a hasta, but these gradually fell out of use to be eventually replaced by the Gladius. However even these troops carried the pilum, which was specifically designed to be thrown at an enemy to pierce and foul a target’s shield.
During this time the spear was also used by cavalry, usually with two hands, partly due to the lack of stirrups. The use of a spear by a heavily armored soldier from horseback (known as Cataphracts) was first developed by nomadic eastern Iranian tribes and spread throughout the ancient world.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the use of the short gladius declined but the spear and shield continued to be used by almost all cultures. The javelin was also used both by infantry and from horseback, especially in Spain and North Africa.
Since a Medieval spear required only a small amount of steel along the sharpened edges (most of the spear-tip was wrought iron), it was an economical weapon. Quick to manufacture, and needing less smithing skill than a sword, it became the common weapon of the peasantry in many parts of the world. The Vikings, for instance, are often portrayed with battle axe or sword in hand — but most were armed with spears, as were their Saxon, Irish, or Continental foes. The spear also has the advantage of reach — being considerably longer than other weapon types. Spear tips varied between types strictly for stabbing and others with longer blades which could also slice (unarmored) foes effectively.
With the rise of heavily armored knights in the medieval age, spear shafts began to be planted against the ground to deter charging cavalry. Tactics, such as the schiltron, made use of massed spears in this way. Spears began to grow in length, eventually morphing into pikes as mounted knights became more important on the battlefields of Europe and a means to counter them needed.