Crescents - Moon-Shaped Prehistoric Stone Tools

North American Prehistoric Chipped Stone Tool Type

Views of a chert crescent from San Miguel Island.
Views of a chert crescent from San Miguel Island. University of Oregon

Crescents (sometimes called lunates) are moon-shaped chipped stone objects which are found fairly rarely on Terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene (roughly equivalent to Preclovis and Paleoindian) sites in the Western United States.

Key Takeaways: Crescents

  • Crescents are a type of stone tool which is commonly found in the western United States.
  • They were made by hunter-gatherers during the Terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene periods, between about 12,000 and 8000 years ago. 
  • Crescents are chipped stone tools in the shape of the crescent moon, with pointed tips and edges ground smooth.
  • They are statistically more often found near wetland areas, leading researchers to suggest they were transverse projectile points used for waterfowl hunting. 

Typically, crescents are chipped from cryptocrystalline quartz (including chalcedony, agate, chert, flint, and jasper), although there are examples from obsidian, basalt, and schist. They are symmetrical and carefully pressure flaked on both sides; typically the wingtips are pointed and the edges are ground smooth. Others, called eccentrics, maintain the overall lunate shape and careful manufacture but have added decorative frills.

Identifying Crescents

Crescents were first described in a 1966 article in American Antiquity by Lewis Tadlock, who defined them as artifacts recovered from Early Archaic (what Tadlock called "Proto-Archaic") through Paleoindian sites in the Great Basin, the Columbia Plateau and the Channel Islands of California. For his study, Tadlock measured 121 crescents from 26 sites in California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. He explicitly associated crescents with big game hunting and gathering lifestyles between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago, and perhaps earlier. He pointed out that the flaking technique and raw material choice of crescents are most similar to Folsom, Clovis and possibly Scottsbluff projectile points. Tadlock listed the earliest crescents as having been used within the Great Basin, he believed they spread out from there. Tadlock was the first to begin a typology of crescents, although the categories have been much extended since then, and today include eccentric forms.

More recent studies have increased the date of crescents, placing them firmly within the Paleoindian period, 12,000 to 8000 cal BP. Apart from that, Tadlock's careful consideration of the size, shape, style, and context of crescents has held up after more than forty years.

What are Crescents for?

No consensus has been reached among scholars for the purpose of crescents. Suggested functions for crescents include their use as butchering tools, amulets, portable art, surgical instruments, and transverse points for hunting birds. American archaeologist Jon Erlandson and colleagues have argued that the most likely interpretation is as transverse projectile points, with the curved edge hafted to point frontwards.

In 2013, American archaeologist Madonna Moss and Erlandson pointed out that lunates are frequently found in wetland environments, and use that as support for lunates as having been used with waterfowl procurement, in particular. large anatids such as tundra swan, greater white-fronted goose, snow goose, and Ross's goose. They speculate that the reason lunates stopped being used in the Great Basin after about 8,000 years ago has to do with the fact that climate change forced the birds out of the region.

A statistical study published in 2017 by Erlandson's team supports the association of crescents with wetlands. A sample of 100 crescents in six western United States were geo-located and mapped onto ancient paleo-shorelines, and 99% of the studied crescents were located within 6 miles of a wetland.

Crescents have been recovered from many sites, including Danger Cave (Utah), Paisley Cave #1 (Oregon), Karlo, Owens Lake, Panamint Lake (California), Lind Coulee (Washington), Dean, Fenn Cache (Idaho), Daisy Cave, Cardwell Bluffs, San Nicolas (Channel Islands).

Selected Sources