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Answer by Stefan Pociask, primitive weapons collector and tracking instructor:
This will be fun. You’ll learn about spears! But to that question, the answer is “no.”
If you change the question to: “Can a single, average-sized, athletic man armed with a primitive spear and minimal training defeat a lion, tiger, or bear in a fight?” the answer would be yes. He can, but it’s certainly not assured. A tremendous amount of luck would be required. It’s unlikely.
If you change the question to: “Will a single, average-sized, athletic man armed with a primitive spear and significant training defeat a lion, tiger, or bear in a fight?” the answer would be quite possibly. There have been times past where killing a lion with a spear has been a rite of passage required of young men in certain African tribes. But this was preceded by significant training.
If it was a youngster proving his mettle, it would likely be a long, narrow-bladed spear. If it was a senior warrior out to specifically hunt lion, it would probably be a long leaf-bladed spear, while a junior warrior might use a shorter one. Of course, they didn’t want their children eaten, so a lot of time was put into training before the event. An undertrained person would likely end up as a midday low-fat snack for the lion. Training included tactics, strategy, weapons grip, feints, the psychology and behavior of an opponent, the weaknesses of an opponent, your own frame of mind, and confidence. It also particularly included knowledge of anatomy and the target area—right alongside the neck. Your opportunities for a killing stroke were limited, sometimes to only one. These are all aspects of training that the minimally trained would not have access to.
Here’s something I bet you never heard. An interesting additional and vital weapon they carried was a small stick, sharp on both ends, only about the size of an ink pen. They would carry this in their opposite hand. If (when) the lion got too close and hadn’t dropped yet, that hand was thrust into the lion’s mouth, turned vertical, and jerked up, thereby keeping the lion from closing his mouth and ripping your throat out with his jaws. To say the least, this required exceptional courage! If a lion wasn’t killed, they were told “Don’t come home!” And if they killed a female lion instead of a large maned lion, “You are cursed, and don’t ever come home!” Some didn’t come home anyway—those who lost their cool. To say the least, it must’ve been an absolutely terrifying experience for these boys. This was true man-versus-beast battle in its most primal form. The man’s advantage was minimal and a far cry from today’s high-powered rifles shot across great distances by great white hunters.
Different styles of spears were used in different areas by different tribes. The particular type of spear that was carried was usually associated with a particular status within a tribe.
All this, to point out that spears are more than a sharp stick. They have functions and different styles for different uses. So weapons choice is also a factor, and “primitive spear” is pretty ambiguous. Spears, by their nature, are primitive; but by their design, they are quite advanced.
Now, the question mentions a number of very different species. The basic answer to all is pretty much the same. Skilled training is required, specific to the opponent, and certainty of a kill is never assured, although the ratio of success is very much reliant on the amount of training—and bravery.
Will a single average-sized athletic man armed with a primitive spear and minimal training defeat a lion, tiger, or bear in a fight? originally appeared on Quora. More questions on Quora: