Updated: Feb 20, 2020
For those who have found an arrowhead before, there are few thrills like it. Touching an artifact that was last touched thousands of years ago by a native inhabitant walking the very same land you stand upon sends chills down your spine. As a kid growing up in farm country in Webster County, Iowa, I spent many hours of my childhood on my horse and on foot looking for arrowheads. I was fascinated with Native cultures of the area that included the Sioux, Winnebago, Sack, Fox, and Woodland tribes, the many area Indian mounds, stories of the Spirit Lake Massacre, and the building of Fort Dodge.
More than 500 tribes of Native Americans inhabited North American and each tribe had their own styles of arrowheads. So arrowhead types are extremely numerous. Understanding the native history of the area in which you are hunting for arrowheads is crucial.
Two basic arrowhead types are Clovis and Folsom, Clovis being earlier (during mammoth and mastodon times) and Folsom later for buffalo hunting and other game. Native hunters learned over time to modify arrowheads to be more effective hunting tools and more accurate. Arrowheads were attached to long shafts that were launched with a bow or an “Atlatl,” a spear thrower.
Clovis points are often found with the bones of mammoth and mastodons and were used from roughly 10,000-13,000 years ago. These points have a short, wide groove, called a “flute,” that extends only a short way up from the base. The flute is where the arrowhead was connected to the split arrow shaft with rawhide or plant bindings.
Folsom points are often found with bones of bison and were used more recently, from roughly 10,000-8,000 years ago. Folsom points used an innovation: flutes were extended almost the full length of the point. Folsom also tend to be generally smaller than Clovis. This is because the size of the arrowhead was commensurate with the size of the animal. Mammoth weighed up to 20,000 pounds, buffalo only 1,000-2,000 pounds. Archeological studies to recreate the arrowheads and test their effectiveness demonstrate that the Folsom design was extraordinarily accurate and powerful and could slice through the ribcage of bison.
Arrowheads of both types were made of different materials dependent upon the geography of the land: obsidian, flint, chert, jasper, quartzite, felsite, rhyolite, chalcedony, agate, basalt, petrified wood, and even bone or antler.
One the most magnificent arrowheads ever found that holds the record for the most valuable specimen in North America is the Rutz Clovis Point, almost 10 inches long and carved of sea green obsidian. It was discovered in 1950 in a wheat field on Badger Mountain, near Badger Creek Springs in Washington state. The projectile head was estimated to be about 13,000 years old and was used to hunt mammoth. It sold for $276,000 at auction in 2013.
The oldest recorded arrowhead ever found was discovered in 2018 by archeologists in Texas about 40 miles northwest of Austin. The spearpoint—made of chert and about 3-4 inches long—was found under several feet of sediment under a cache of both Clovis and Folsom arrowheads and other tools. The chert point actually pre-dated even Clovis points to about 15,500 years ago! (Ongoing archeology digs and research continue to place human beings on the North American continent earlier than previously believed.)
Arrowheads and other ancient tools of America’s indigenous peoples are shrouded in many myths. Here are just several:
Myth #1: Small arrowheads were used to kill birds. Nope. Even though the smallest arrowheads are sometimes referred to as “bird points” by collectors, archeological research indicates that even tiny points under a half inch long could be lethal in killing deer or even larger animals. Such a point would, in fact, pass right through a bird!
Myth #2: Arrows always had a stone point to ‘balance’ the shaft. Not true. Arrowhead and arrow design are complex and balance IS crucial. But stone arrowheads were not always the best choice and were sometimes too heavy, destabilizing the projection of the arrow and causing it to fishtail in flight. Depending on its purpose, an arrow point could be made of shell, bone, antler, or even sharpening the business end of the wooden arrow.
Myth #3: Arrowheads were made by heating rock and dripping water on it. Nope. A stone projectile point is achieved by sustained and delicate chipping and flaking stone with another hard stone. This is called percussion flaking. Another technique is pressure, flaking, using a stone or deer antler and soft pressure to get delicate contours. called a. It’s called “flint knapping.” There are, however, some cherts and flints that can be hardened by exposure to heat.
Myth #4: It takes a really long time to make an arrowhead. Some tools do indeed require much time, but not most arrowheads. Native Americans learned knapping and flaking arrowheads at a young age and could create some arrowheads in a matter of minutes. A 19th century anthropologist named John Bourke once timed an Apache flintknapper, who made four points in 6-1/2 minutes.
Myth #5: Stone projectile points are far more effective than a sharpened spear. An episode of Myth Busters on the Discovery Channel investigated this belief in 2009 and found that stone points only penetrate about 10% deeper into animal carcasses than sharpened sticks. Another archeology experiment conducted in 2009 indicated that the depth of penetration was related to the width of the projectile point, not the length or weight.
Some other fun facts: Bow and arrow hunting has been dated to at least 70,000 years ago in South Africa but was not used by humans outside of African until about 15,000 – 20,000 years ago. Likewise, the atlatl, a device used to throw darts and arrows, was invented by humans later than the bow and arrow, about 20,000 years ago.
How do you find arrowheads? Here are just a few helpful tips:
First learn about your area’s native history and what tribes hunted that area and when.
Talk to area collectors. Some may share advice on where they usually find arrowheads.
Hunting in an area known for Indian mounds or Indian villages is a good bet. BUT most parks and protected areas are off limits for taking artifacts, so be respectful. Always ask permission if you hunt on private land.
Look first for water sources. Native American camps were often set up near water sources and hunting was often done near watering holes where wildlife came to drink. Hunting near the shores of rivers and lake beds or shallow creeks and sand bars are great places.
Places where creeks or rivers join together or forks in rivers were often popular camp areas for native hunters.
Hunting is best after a rainfall or flood, and in the springtime after the winter melt when water has washed out top layers of soil exposing debris underneath.
Hunt in areas where surface areas have been exposed by erosion, farming, or construction. Many people hunt in recently plowed fields, as the lower levels of soil have been upturned. Quarries and construction sites also have massive amounts of displaced soil. Shorelines and riverbanks often have naturally eroded banks.
Use a “sand dipper” or a “sifter box” which can sift through larger amounts of sand or pebbles to reveal arrowheads embedded underneath the surface.
Three of the best arrowhead databases are the Paleoindian Database of the Americas (pidba.utk.edu), Projectile Point Identification Guide (projectilepoints.net), and the Overstreet Indian Arrowhead Identification Online Database (typology.arrowheads.com).
Have you ever found an arrowhead? Please share your stories.
Several years ago, in our back woods in Wisconsin, a friend found a small arrowhead near some massive oak trees hundreds of years old. They were the last of an oak savannah that had not been cut down by early pioneers. Our woods are near an ancient Indian trail bordering cliffs overlooking Lake Michigan. I imagine this beautiful place was a favorite hunting ground for ancient natives and that I was touching a piece of stone a hunter had chiseled hundreds or thousands of years before. It was a thrill! Even as an adult today, when I walk in nature, I can’t help but cast my eyes downward to scan the ground for arrowheads. Not every pointy stone is an arrowhead, of course, but my heart will jump every time....
PHOTOS: (1) A chart from Projectilepoints.net showing the most basic categories of North American arrowheads. ( 2) The most valuable arrowhead found to date in North America, the Rutz Clovis Point. Almost ten inches long and carved of sea green obsidian, it was found in a wheat field in Washington State in 1950. It was sold at auction in 2013 for $276,000. It is estimated to be about 13,000 years old. (3) The oldest arrowhead found in North America to date was found in 2018 by archeologists near Austin, Texas. Carved of chert, about 3-4 inches long, it was made about 15,500 years ago and predates even Clovis points. (4) Three Clovis projectile points on the left AND three Folsom points on the right. Clovis points are older, used for hunting mammoth and mastodon and date from about 13,000- 10,000 years ago. Folsom points are newer and date from about 10,000-8,000 years ago. The basic difference is that Clovis have a center groove, called a “flute,” that is short and low to the base. Folsom points have a long flute that extends nearly the entire length of the point. From the John Branney Collection. (5) The oldest artifact ever found in Massachusetts was unearthed in 2017 near Northampton in a potato field. A Clovis point about five inches long and 13,000 years old, it was found by an amateur archeologist. Later, e team of archeologists also discovered quartz flakes and Hudson River Valley flint, known to be materials used for Clovis tools and that indicated the site had once been a Clovis hunting camp.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
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