Fluted Points

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Dennis J. Stanford, Ph.D.

Dennis Stanford with Clovis stone points from the collection of the Smithsonian?s National Museum of Natural History

Photo by Chip Clark

Dr. Dennis J. Stanford earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Wyoming and went on to complete his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico. He serves as the curator of North and South American Paleolithic, Asian Paleolithic and Western United States archaeological collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He is the director of the Smithsonian’s Paleoindian and Paleoecology Program and the Head of the Division of Archaeology at the Museum. His research interests include how climate change and ecosystems during the terminal Pleistocene influenced the origins and development of New World Paleo-Indian cultures. He uses public and experimental archaeology to learn more about stone tool technology and early human lifestyles. He has conducted fieldwork in all areas of the world, including Siberia, China, Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, Plains and Southeastern United States, and Central and South America. He is well published, with his most recent work titled, "Across Atlantic Ice," which explores the idea that the first people arrived in North America by boat from Southwest Europe, rather than over the Bering Strait.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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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.


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.

An Example of Woodland Pottery
A88341-0, Department of Anthropology, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution

About Native American Traditions of Eastern North America

The first humans in eastern North America were small hunting and gathering societies that lived in the eastern woodlands of the United States and relied exclusively on wild plants and animals for their food. About 4,000 years ago, pottery first appeared in North America, but was not widespread until 3,000 years ago. Pottery was an important part of these societies as they shifted from their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one built around agriculture, specifically corn, or maize. At about the same time that maize became the most important crop plant in eastern North America, a major advance in ceramic technology also occurred. Native American societies in the Southeast and Midwest United States began to add ground clam shell to strengthen or temper their pottery clay. This allowed them to make much larger, stronger, and longer-lived vessels of many different shapes. Pottery is a key element of the archaeological record from approximately 1050 B.C., gradually increasing in both the quality and types of vessels made until European explorers and settlers arrived.

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.