Wooden Spear

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Bruce D. Smith, Ph.D.

Dr. Bruce D. Smith

Image Courtesy Bruce D. Smith

Dr. Bruce D. Smith first became interested in archaeology as a crewmember on a summer excavation of an archaeological site in Missouri when he was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He went on to get a doctorate at Michigan and joined the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in the late 1970's. For most of his career he has been interested in studying human-environmental interaction through the identification of plant and animal remains from archaeological sites. He enjoys the challenge of looking at small fragments of ancient plants and animal bones and figuring out what species they belong to, and if the species was wild or domesticated. Since the mid-1980's he has focused on documenting when plants were first domesticated in the Americas. He currently serves as the senior research scientist and curator of North American Archaeology at the museum, and he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, USA.

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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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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.

Examples of Hohokam Pottery
Curtesy of Arizona Museum of Natural History

About Native American Traditions of Southwest North America

The first vessels of the Southwest region of North America were woven baskets and string bags used for transportation, storage, and other needs. This Basketmaker tradition started roughly 4,000 years ago and continued through approximately A.D. 750. While undecorated gray ware was occasionally used, it wasn't until 1,200 years ago that ceramics began to play a large role in daily life. Along with other societal changes during this time, ceramics were suddenly much more varied in shape (pitchers, ladles, bowls, jars, plates). Three distinctive regional traditions emerged: the Pueblo or Anasazi tradition, the Hohokam tradition, and the Mogollon culture. These cultures each occupied a different region of the Southwest and had distinctive cultural practices, identifying features, and pottery decoration. Archaeologists can identify these cultures through their artifacts, traditions, and links to modern day residents of this region. Many modern day Native American cultures claim links to these peoples as their ancestors and continue to practice many of the same traditions today.


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.

Baule woodcarvers at work, Yagolikro village, Ivory Coast
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1972. Image no. EEPA EECL 6900. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

About Humans and the Environment

Humans have always manipulated their environment, whether by acquiring food, making and using tools, or other aspects of daily life. They are constantly interacting with their environment on a daily basis. By using the available materials, humans have created shelter, made tools, created containers and vessels, and produced items of personal and cultural significance. Many of these resources are naturally occurring, such as stones, minerals, animal bones, or organic fibers from plants, while others are made from combining materials. The process of acquiring these materials and the manufacturing process can be traditional practices that are passed down from one generation to another. Because materials are unique to the location of different communities and cultures, by studying the types of materials, as well as animal remains found and the processes used to manipulate them, anthropologists and researchers can learn about the daily activities and lifestyles of the cultures they are studying. In what ways do you interact with your environment on a daily basis?