Stone Age Baseball
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

Stone Age Baseball

Nolan Ryan, who retired from baseball after the 1993 season, pitched in the major leagues for over 25 years. He holds the major league record for strikeouts (over 5,000) as well as for pitching no—hitters (seven). At age 45, he still threw a fastball over 100 miles per hour!

Should someone ask when the fast pitch was invented, the logical answer would be, "A few days after baseball." However, increasing evidence indicates that our early human ancestors may have perfected a fast ball—or fast stone—that even Nolan Ryan might envy.

The French explorer Count de la Perouse recorded that, during his travels through the South Pacific in 1787, he sent a water—replenishing party ashore on the Navigators Islands, now known as Samoa. He lost 12 of the 61 men almost immediately when they were caught by surprise in a barrage of rocks thrown so hard "they produced almost the same effect as our bullets, and had the advantage of succeeding one another with greater rapidity."

This is certainly not the only record of primitive peoples employing the fast pitch with baseball—sized stones to besiege an enemy. British historian J. G. Wood wrote in The Natural History of Man (1870) that Australian aborigines occasionally killed gun—toting British soldiers with stones. Dancing crazily from side to side so that the soldier would be unable to take deliberate, accurate aim, the aborigine would unleash "a shower of stones with a force and precision that must be seen to be believed." We know now that many of the Pacific island natives employed the fast stone as a weapon of war and hunting, and many of them could have put the greatest of modern baseball pitchers out to pasture with their speed and precision.

With Wood's book as a guide, scientists searched museum collections for these early baseball—like weapons. A number of handstones were found gathering dust in drawers simply because the curators, though they recognized the stones as artifacts, had no clue to their use. Most of the handstones were lemon shaped, which suggests that they were thrown with a spin, rather like miniature footballs.

In the well—known biblical story, David defeated Goliath with a missile hurled from a slingshot. History fails to emphasize that many soldiers in early skirmishes were equipped not with bows and arrows or spears but with fist—sized stones carried in quivers or pouches. They were extremely efficient and skillful, and a barrage of hurled stone missiles would mow down an attacking force more quickly and effectively than an assault with arrows would. The soldiers were also equipped with short swords for close—in fighting with any enemies that survived an attack of stones.

In the late 1980s the remains of a soldier were uncovered in the vicinity of the walled city of Jericho. He was a casualty of the stone—throwing infantry. His shoulder had been broken by the impact of a hurled stone, and his skull fractured by either a club or another thrown stone. He had died clutching a stone the size of a baseball but oval in shape. Clearly he was preparing to hurl his missile when struck down. At his side was a pile of seven throwing stones that had lain in his now decomposed missile pouch. The implication is that warfare always ended with hand—to—hand combat. The scientists who uncovered this warrior's skeleton nicknamed him the "lone soldier of fortune."

Examination of fossil bones found at early—human sites of two million years ago, such as Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, reveal scratch marks made as the hominid feasted on the meat. Since all of the stone implements discovered here were for cutting, not fighting, the question remains—how did these very early men hunt animals? Undoubtedly some were obtained by scavenging, but the problem still remained of how to keep other scavengers away from the kill.

The answers lay for many years at the feet of scientists excavating the sites but were ignored. These sites are abundantly littered with smooth, roundish stones about the size of baseballs. They would not have been suitable for flaking into tools but were ideal for throwing. Rounded stones found in great quantities at early kill sites were the hunting weapons of the time. One such stone was found embedded in an early hominid's skull, demonstrating that they were also very effective implements during times of conflict. The very nature of the fractured skull indicates the tremendous force with which this missile was thrown. It was definitely a killing blow, for the physical evidence indicates that this was not a postmortem assault. The fact that the stone was never removed suggests that the skull itself may have become a war trophy.

The hands of early humans were suited for the hurling of stones. As far back as 3.4 million years ago, Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy's people) could shape their hands into the three—fingered grip that baseball pitchers now use for strength and control of the ball. Apparently stone throwing comes so naturally that some anthropologists believe this could have been one of the incentives for our ancestors to walk erect. One thing is certain: the fastball pitch was used for hunting and defense at least 3 million years before the mid—19th century, when baseball was officially supposed to have been invented!

The lethal reputation of the hurled ball was reaffirmed in August 1920. Shortstop Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians became the first and only on—field fatality when he was hit by a pitched ball just above his left ear. He died one day after he was struck, and shortly thereafter the batting helmet was invented.

Sometime in the future a pitcher of incredible skill, strength, and stamina may exceed the record of Nolan Ryan. We must hope, however, that no hurler of the hardball will be able to surpass the killer record of our primitive ancestors.