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.
Stone Arrowheads, Prehistoric Ute Culture. James Bee Collection, Utah. Steven Kaufman / Getty Images

Arrowheads are among the most easily recognized artifact in the world; and often the subject of a number of misconceptions. Here are some of my favorites:

  • 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 triangular 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 point 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 'usewear 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 such as the so-called eccentrics (one is illustrated in the lower left corner of the photo), or created for placement in a burial.

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

Experimental archaeology has shown that so-called 'bird points'--even those 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 stone would easily pass right through a bird, which are more easily obtained using a net.

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

So-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 would 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.

  • Myth Number 4: 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.

  • Myth Number 5: 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.

More Projectile Point Myths

Faithful reader Chris R. Loendorf (Archaeologist at Gila River Indian Community) suggested these additional myths ought to be mentioned.

  • Myth Number 6: It takes a really long time to make an arrowpoint.

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 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). Arrowheads, for example, can be made from start to finish in less than 15 minutes; John Bourke (1890) timed an Apache making four stone points and the average was only 6 1/2 minutes.

  • Myth Number 7: All arrows (darts or spears) had stone projectile points attached, to 'balance' the shaft.

In many cases, the ends of arrows were simply sharpened, or light-weight points from other materials (e.g., shell, teeth, or antler) were attached. 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 also increases stresses that occur in the shaft when rapidly accelerated from the opposite end, which can result in "porpoising" of the projectile or even shatter it if severe.

  • 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 (and written up in Waguespack et al. 2009) revealed that stone tools only penetrate about 10% deeper into animal carcasses than sharpened sticks. A recent study by Sisk and Shea (2009) found that point penetration might be related to the width of a projectile point.

Next: Some Little Known Facts

As you might imagine, archaeologists have been studying the projectile point for a very long time; here are some of the lesser known findings of our research.

  • Little Known Fact Number 1: 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 characteristics. Shapes and thicknesses changed over time for reasons related to function and technology, as well as style within a particular group, but for whatever reason, generations of archaeologists are very happy they were made this way.

Studies of different sizes and shapes of points are called point typologies.

In general, the larger, finely made points are the oldest points, and are called spear points, used as the working ends of spears. The middle sized, fairly thick points are called dart points; these are in between arrows and spear points, and they were used with an atlatl. Tiny points are the most recent, used at the ends of arrows shot with bows.

  • Little Known Fact Number 2: Archaeologists 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 usewear analysis, in which archaeologists use a microscope to search for small scratches and breaks in the edges of stone tools.

Usewear analysis is often used in conjunction with experimental archaeology, in which people attempt to reproduce ancient technologies.

  • Little Known Fact Number 3: Broken points are more interesting than whole ones.

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

Archaeologists love it when they find a broken point 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 4: Archaeologists sometime 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 haft portion of a broken point is found, it's almost always at a base camp. 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.

  • Little Known Fact Number 5: 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 6: 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.

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.

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