Contracting Stem Points

Associated Smithsonian Expert: J. Daniel Rogers, Ph.D.

Dr. Dan Rogers

Image Courtesy of J. Dan Rogers

Dr. J. Daniel Rogers is Curator of Archaeology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. As a boy picnicking with his family he became fascinated with the ancient ruins of the ancestral Puebloan dwellings found near his childhood home of Winslow, Arizona. Since then he has never lost his curiosity and respect for the study of the past. He received B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Oklahoma and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago. His archaeological work has taken him to the Southwestern U.S., the Caribbean, Mexico, Peru, China, and Mongolia. Since 2002 he has studied the early empires of Inner Asia, especially in Mongolia. His research has also focused on the native history of Mexico, the Great Plains, and Southeastern U.S.; the role of colonialism; the spread of empires around the world; and the development of interdisciplinary research using computer simulations. He is the author or co-editor of numerous articles and books, including "Objects of Change" (1990), "Ethnohistory and Archaeology" (1993), "Mississippian Communities and Households" (1995), and "The Archaeology of Global Change" (2004). His current book project is titled "In the Age of Empires."

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Projectile points have been made in many different shapes, sizes and styles
Image courtesy of The National Parks Service, US Department of the Interior

Projectile Points

Stone tools were used by early humans to make their daily activities easier. There are many types of stone tools that archaeologists find when excavating sites. Projectile points are some of the most commonly found at former hunting camps and were used to hunt both large and small game. There are two main types of projectile points: spear points and arrow points. Spear points are typically larger and heavier, while arrow points are smaller and lighter. Projectile points were typically attached to shafts made from organic material, like wood, and are often the only remaining element of these types of tools found. Projectile points can be simple triangles, others are long, thin, and fluted, while some are pointed with distinctive stems or tangs where they attach to the wood arrow shaft. The shape and size depended on the time period in which they were made, the raw materials available at the location where they were made, the animals they were intending to hunt, and the culture of the people who made them.

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Prehistoric Weapons for Hunting and Fishing

Prehistoric humans used tools for many activities in their daily lives. Two activities they used tools for were hunting and fishing. The first hunting tools were probably sharpened wooden thrusting spears without any stone points. Because a thrusting spear requires the hunter to get very close to an animal in order to kill it, humans eventually learned to make throwing spears tipped with sharp stone points, atlatl or spear throwers, and bows and arrows that could safely kill large and dangerous prey from a distance. Bows and arrows made hunting more efficient. Arrows are lighter and smaller to carry than spears, require less raw material to make, and can travel faster towards a target. Prehistoric humans were also skilled fishermen; some of the earliest fishhooks were made of bone and were found in Central Africa. They also created serrated or barbed harpoons for use in fishing. Later, people learned how to fish with nets and used stone net sinkers to expand the reach of their nets and increase the amount of fish they would catch. As people migrated and the game they hunted and fished changed over time, so did the structure, shape, and type of tools they made and used.

Different types of materials used to make stone tools
Photograph courtesy of Scott G.ÿJaquith and Charles A. Hannaford

Materials Used for Stone Tools

Prehistoric tools were made from many different materials. The most common tools in the archaeological record are those made from rocks and minerals. This is due to their ability to preserve well and not disintegrate over time. Prehistoric humans would seek out stones that would break in predictable ways and could be easily manipulated. These included flint, obsidian, chert, and different versions of quartz. Sometimes prehistoric humans would use fire to heat the raw stone material and make it easier to shape into a tool. As tools became more specialized, the types of materials used to make them expanded. Prehistoric humans began to use bones, antlers, wood, and other organic matter to help them with their daily activities. They would also combine materials to make their tools. For example, they would use wood for shafts of spears or arrows and attach these to stone projectile points using a thread made from animal hide and glue made from plant resin. As humans moved throughout the world, they encountered new types of materials that they could use to create new tools. For example, stone tools made of flint are very common in Western Europe while tools made of obsidian (volcanic glass) are much more common in Eastern Africa.

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How Prehistoric Tools Were Used by Humans

Many different animals besides humans use tools, but making such diverse and specialized tools is a trait characteristic of our species in particular. These skills separate humans from other primates. Prehistoric tools were made from many different types of materials, including stone, wood, animal bones, and antlers. Eventually modern humans learned how to make tools out of metals like copper and iron. Early tools come in many varieties, including points for spears and arrows, axes, sinkers, atlatls, digging sticks, knives, drills, scrapers, awls, and others. Tools allowed humans to become skilled hunters and fisherman. Prehistoric humans also used stone tools to help them perform daily activities. Tools like axes, scrapers, and awls were used to process animal kills for food preparation and to turn animal hides into clothing. Prehistoric humans also used tools to work wood and plant materials into shelters. By using tools, humans exerted some control over their environment and were able to influence and change it. This allowed them to live in more diverse climates and spread throughout the world.

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