Arrowheads and Other Points: Myths and Little Known Facts

In the world, arrowheads are among the most easily recognizable artifacts. Many generations of children have found these rocks in parks, farm fields, and creek beds that have been shaped into pointed tools by humans.

It’s probably because we were fascinated by them as children that so many myths about them exist, and for this reason they are sometimes studied by adult children. Here are some common misconceptions about arrowheads and some things archaeologists have learned about them.

Not All Pointy Objects Are Arrowheads

  • Myth Number 1: All triangular stone objects found on archaeological sites are arrowheads.

The arrowheads, which were attached to shafts and shot with bows, are only a small subset of what archaeologists call projectile points. A projectile point is a triangularly pointed tool used throughout prehistory and the world over to hunt game and practice warfare. The haft of a projectile point enables it to be attached to a wood or ivory shaft and has a pointed end.

Hunting tools with points, such as spears, darts or atlas, and bows and arrows, fall into three broad categories. In hunting, each type of point needs a specific physical shape, thickness, and weight; arrowheads are the smallest of all points.

Research into edge damage (called use-wear analysis) indicates that some of the stone tools that look like projectile points may have been used as cutting tools rather than to propel into animals.

Special projectile points were clearly not created for a working purpose in some cultures and periods. Stone objects can be elaborately worked, such as eccentrics, or they can be crafted for burial or other ritual purposes.

Size and Shape Matters

  • Myth Number 2: The smallest arrowheads were used for killing birds.

In the collector community, the smallest arrowheads are sometimes called “bird points.” Archaeology has shown that even tiny objects under an inch long can kill a deer or larger animal. A bow was used to shoot these arrowheads, which were attached to arrows.

An arrow tipped with a stone bird point would easily pass right through a bird, which is easier to hunt with a net.

  • Myth Number 3: The hafted tools with the round ends are meant for stunning prey rather than killing it.

Blandom points – also known as stunners – are reworked dart points shaped into a long horizontal plane by hand. It is possible that one edge of the plane was purposefully sharpened. The scraping tools have a ready-made hafting element and are excellent for scraping animal hides or wood. Scrapers with hafted blades are properly referred to as hafted scrapers.

Many examples of lanceolate points (long projectile points hafted onto spears) being reworked into dart points for use with atlatls suggest that older stone tools were often reworked and repurposed.

Myths About Making an Arrowhead

  • Myth Number 4: Arrowheads are made by heating a rock and then dripping water on it.

During flint knapping, a sustained effort is made to chip and flake stone to produce a stone projectile point. Stone knappers shape raw stones into their final shape and size by hitting them with another stone (called percussion flaking) and/or using a stone or deer antler to apply soft pressure (pressure flaking).

  • Myth Number 5: It takes a really long time to make an arrow point.

Despite the fact that some stone tools (e.g., Clovis points) require time and considerable skill, flintknapping, in general, is not time-consuming or difficult. Anyone who can swing a rock can create efficient flake tools in a matter of seconds. Although more complex tools require more skill, they are not necessarily time-consuming to produce.

Flintknappers can make arrowheads from start to finish in less than 15 minutes if they are skilled. The average Apache making four stone points took only 6.5 minutes, according to anthropologist John Bourke in the late 19th century.

  • Myth Number 6: All arrows (darts or spears) had stone projectile points attached, to balance the shaft.

Alternatives to stone arrowheads include shell, animal bone, or antler or simply sharpening the business end of the shaft. Heavy points actually destabilize an arrow during launch, and the shaft will fly out of the bow when fitted with a heavy head. During launch, the nock (i.e., notch for the bowstring) accelerates before the tip of the arrow.

When the nock’s velocity is combined with the inertia of the tip, on the opposite end of the shaft, the distal end of the arrow tends to spin forward. When accelerated rapidly from the opposite end, a heavy point can cause “porpoising” or “fishtailing” of the arrow shaft. It is even possible for the shaft to shatter in severe cases.

Myths: Weapons and Warfare

  • Myth Number 7: The reason we so many projectile points is that there was a lot of warfare between tribes in prehistory.

A study of blood residues on stone projectile points revealed that most stone tools were made by animals, not humans. In most cases, these points were used as hunting tools. There was warfare in prehistory, but it was far less common than hunting for food.

Many projectile points have been found, despite centuries of determined collecting, because the technology is very old: people have been making points to hunt animals for over 200,000 years.

  • Myth Number 8: Stone projectile points are far more effective a weapon than a sharpened spear.

A Discovery Channel “Myth Busters” team under the direction of archaeologists Nichole Waguespack and Todd Surovell revealed that stone tools penetrated animal carcasses about 10% deeper than sharpened sticks. Matthew Sisk and John Shea also found that the width of a projectile point, not its length or weight, is associated with the depth of penetration into an animal.

Favorite Little Known Facts

The making and use of projectiles has been studied by archaeologists for at least a century. Experiments have expanded into experimental archaeology and replication experiments, which include making stone tools and practicing their use. Microscopically inspecting stone tool edges for animal and plant residues is another study. An analysis of databases on point types and extensive studies on ancient sites have provided archaeologists with a great deal of information about the age of projectile points and how they changed over time.

  • Little Known Fact Number 1: Stone projectile point use is at least as old as the Middle Paleolithic Levallois period.

Many Middle Paleolithic archaeological sites have found pointed stone and bone objects, such as Umm el Tiel in Syria, Oscurusciuto in Italy, and Blombos and Sibudu Caves in South Africa. 200,000 years ago, both Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans probably used these points as thrusting or throwing spears. By 400–300,000 years ago, sharpened wooden spears without stone tips were in use.

In South Africa, bow and arrow hunting dates back at least 70,000 years, but it wasn’t used by people outside of Africa until the Late Upper Paleolithic, about 15,000–20,000 years ago.

Humans invented the atlatl during the Upper Paleolithic period, at least 20,000 years ago, to aid in throwing darts.

  • Little Known Fact Number 2: By and large, you can tell how old a projectile point is or where it came from by its shape and size.

Culture and time period are determined by the form and flaking style of projectile points. Over time, shapes and thicknesses have changed, partly because of function and technology, but also because of group preferences. Archaeologists can use these changes to map point styles to periods for whatever reason they occurred. The study of different sizes and shapes of points is called point typology.

The larger, finely made points are generally the oldest and were probably fixed to spearheads. Using an atlatl, middle-sized, fairly thick points were called dart points. Bows were used to shoot arrows with the smallest points.

Previously Unknown Functions

  • Little Known Fact Number 3: Archaeologists can use a microscope and chemical analysis to identify scratches and minute traces of blood or other substances on the edges of projectile points.

A forensic analysis of points excavated from intact archaeological sites can often reveal trace elements of blood or protein on the edges of tools, allowing archaeologists to deduce what the point was used for. Blood residue or protein residue analysis is a fairly common test.

The edges of stone tools have been found to contain plant residues such as opal phytoliths and pollen grains, which indicate which plants were harvested or worked with stone sickles.

In use-wear analysis, archaeologists examine stone tools’ edges for small scratches and breaks using a microscope. In experimental archaeology, people attempt to recreate ancient technologies using use-wear analysis.

  • Little Known Fact Number 4: Broken points are more interesting than whole ones.

Lithic specialists who have studied broken stone tools are able to determine how and why an arrowhead was broken, whether it happened during the making process, while hunting, or as a result of an intentional act. Points that break during manufacture reveal information about their construction process. Rituals and other activities can be represented by intentional breaks.

Among the most exciting and useful finds is a broken point within the flaky stone debris (called debitage) that was created during the point’s construction. It is possible to learn a great deal about human behavior from such a cluster of artifacts.

  • Little Known Fact Number 5: Archaeologists sometimes use broken arrowheads and projectile points as interpretive tools.

Archaeologists interpret an isolated point tip found away from a campsite as a tool that broke during a hunting trip. The base of a broken point is almost always found at a campsite. There is a theory that the tip is left behind at the hunting site (or embedded in the animal), while the hafting element is taken back to base camp for possible reworking.

Many of the oddest looking projectile points were reworked from earlier points, such as when an old point was found and reworked later.

New Facts: What Science Has Learned about Stone Tool Production

  • Little Known Fact Number 6: Some native cherts and flints improve their character by being exposed to heat.

In experiments, archaeologists have found that heat treatment increases a stone’s gloss, changes its color, and, most importantly, increases its knappability.

  • Little Known Fact Number 7: Stone tools are fragile.

Numerous archaeological experiments have shown that stone projectile points break after a few uses, and few remain usable for very long.

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