Arrowheads and Other Points: Myths and Little Known Facts

Myth-Busting, Scientific Information about the Common Arrowhead

Stone Arrowheads, Prehistoric Ute Culture. James Bee Collection, Utah.
A variety of North American stone projectile points from the James Bee Collection, Utah. Steven Kaufman / Getty Images

Arrowheads are among the most easily recognized type of artifact found in the world. Untold generations of children poking around in parks or farm fields or creek beds have discovered these rocks that have clearly been shaped by humans into pointed working tools. Our fascination with them as children is probably why there are so many myths about them, and almost certainly why those children sometimes grow up and study them.

Here are some common misconceptions about arrowheads, and some things that archaeologists have learned about these ubiquitous objects.

Not All Pointy Objects are Arrowheads

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

Arrowheads, objects fixed to the end of a shaft and shot with a bow, are only a fairly small subset of what archaeologists call projectile points. A projectile point is a broad category of triangularly pointed tools made of stone, shell, metal, or glass and used throughout prehistory and the world over to hunt game and practice warfare. A projectile point has a pointed end and some kind of worked element called the haft, which enabled attaching the point to a wood or ivory shaft.

There are three broad categories of point-assisted hunting tools, including spear, dart or atlatl, and bow and arrow. Each hunting type requires a pointed tip that meets a specific physical shape, thickness, and weight; arrowheads are the very smallest of the point types.

In addition, microscopic research into edge damage (called 'use-wear analysis') has shown that some of the stone tools that look like projectile points may have been hafted cutting tools, rather than for propelling into animals.

In some cultures and time periods, special projectile points were clearly not created for a working use at all.

These can be elaborately worked stone objects such as the so-called eccentrics or created for placement in a burial or other ritual context.

Size and Shape Matters

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

The smallest arrowheads are sometimes called "bird points" by the collector community. Experimental archaeology has shown that these tiny—even the ones under a half inch in length—are plenty lethal enough to kill a deer or even larger animal. These are true arrowheads, in that they were attached to arrows and shot using a bow.

An arrow tipped with a stone bird point would easily pass right through a bird, which is more easily hunted with nets.

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

Stone tools called 'blunt points' or 'stunners' are actually regular dart points that have been reworked so that the pointy end is a long horizontal plane. At least one edge of the plane might have been purposefully sharpened. These are excellent scraping tools, for working animal hides or wood, with a ready-made hafting element. The proper term for these kinds of tools is hafted scrapers.

Evidence for reworking and repurposing older stone tools was quite common in the past—there are many examples of lanceolate points (long projectile points hafted onto spears) which were reworked into dart points for use with atlatls.

Myths About Making an Arrowhead

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

A stone projectile point is made by a sustained effort of chipping and flaking stone called flint knapping. Flintknappers work a raw piece of stone into its shape by hitting it with another stone (called percussion flaking) and/or using a stone or deer antler and soft pressure (pressure flaking) to get the final product to just the right shape and size.

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

While it is true that making some stone tools (e.g., Clovis points) requires time and considerable skill, flintknapping, in general, is not a time-intensive task nor does it necessarily require a great amount of skill. Expedient flake tools can be made in a matter of seconds by anyone who is capable of swinging a rock.

Even producing more complicated tools is not necessarily a time-intensive task (though they do require more skill).

If a flintknapper is skilled, she can make an arrowhead from start to finish in less than 15 minutes. In the late 19th century, anthropologist John Bourke timed an Apache making four stone points and the average was only 6 1/2 minutes.

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

Stone arrowheads are not always the best choice for hunters: alternatives include shell, animal bone, or antler or simply sharpening the business end. A heavy point actually destabilizes an arrow during launch, and the shaft will fly out from the bow when fitted with a heavy head. When an arrow is launched from a bow, the nock (i.e., notch for the bowstring) is accelerated before the tip.

The greater velocity of the nock when combined with the inertia of a tip of higher density than the shaft and on its opposite end, tends to spin the distal end of the arrow forward. A heavy point increases stresses that occur in the shaft when rapidly accelerated from the opposite end, which can result in "porpoising" or fishtailing of the arrow shaft while in flight. In severe cases, the shaft can even shatter.

Myths: Weapons and Warfare

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

Investigation of blood residues on stone projectile points reveal that the DNA on the majority of stone tools are from animals, not humans; and thus, most often used as hunting tools. Although there was warfare in prehistory, it was far less frequent than hunting for food.

The reason there are so many projectile points to be found, even after centuries of determined collecting, is that the technology is a very old one: 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.

    Recent experiments conducted by the Discovery Channel's Myth Busters team under the direction of archaeologists Nichole Waguespack and Todd Surovell (2009) reveal that stone tools only penetrate about 10% deeper into animal carcasses than sharpened sticks. Also using experimental archaeology techniques, archaeologists Matthew Sisk and John Shea (2009) found that the depth of point penetration into an animal might be related to the width of a projectile point, not the length or weight.

    Favorite Little Known Facts

    Archaeologists have been studying projectile making and use for at least the past century. Studies have expanded into experimental archaeology and replication experiments with making stone tools and practicing their use. Other studies include microscopic wear on stone tool edges, identifying the presence of animal and plant residues on those tools. Extensive studies on truly ancient sites and database analysis on point types have given archaeologists much information about the age of projectile points and how they changed over time and function.

    Pointed stone and bone objects have been discovered on many Middle Paleolithic archaeological sites, such as Umm el Tiel in Syria, Oscurusciuto in Italy, and Blombos and Sibudu Caves in South Africa. These points were probably used as thrusting or throwing spears, by both Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans, as long ago as ~200,000 years. Sharpened wooden spears without stone tips were in use by ~400-300,000 years ago.

    Bow and arrow hunting is at least 70,000 years old in South Africa but was not used by people outside of Africa until the Late Upper Paleolithic, about 15,000—20,000 years ago.

    The atlatl, a device to assist in throwing darts, was invented by humans during the Upper Paleolithic period, at least 20,000 years ago.

    • 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.

    Projectile points are identified to culture and time period on the basis of their form and flaking style. Shapes and thicknesses changed over time probably at least partly for reasons related to function and technology, but also style preferences within a particular group. For whatever reason they changed, archaeologists can use these changes to map point styles to periods. Studies of the different sizes and shapes of points are called point typologies.

    In general, the larger, finely made points are the oldest points, and were likely spear points, fixed to the working ends of spears. The middle-sized, fairly thick points are called dart points; they were used with an atlatl. The smallest points were used at the ends of arrows shot with bows.

    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.

    On points excavated from intact archaeological sites, forensic analysis can often identify trace elements of blood or protein on the edges of tools, allowing the archaeologist to make substantive interpretations on what a point was used for. Called blood residue or protein residue analysis, the test has become a fairly common one.

    In an allied laboratory field, deposits of plant residues such as opal phytoliths and pollen grains have been found on the edges of stone tools, which help identify the plants that were harvested or worked with stone sickles.

    Another avenue of research is called use-wear analysis, in which archaeologists use a microscope to search for small scratches and breaks in the edges of stone tools. Use-wear analysis is often used in conjunction with experimental archaeology, in which people attempt to reproduce ancient technologies.

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

    Lithic specialists who have studied broken stone tools are able to recognize how and why an arrowhead came to be broken, whether in the process of being made, during hunting or as an intentional or accidental breakage. Points that broke during manufacture often present information about the process of their construction. Intentional breaks can be representative of rituals or other activities.

    Best of all is a broken point found in the midst of the flaky stone debris (called debitage) that was created during the point's construction. Such a cluster of artifacts has just fistfuls of information about human behaviors.

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

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

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

    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.

    Experimental archaeologists have identified the effects of heat treatment on some stone to increase a raw material's gloss, alter the color, and most importantly, increase the stone's knappability.

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

    According to several archaeological experiments, stone projectile points break in use and frequently after only one to three uses, and few remain usable for very long.