Oukonunaka – Set Your Atlatl Darts on Stun

For the past three years, the Archaeology in Tennessee blog has published numerous posts aimed at audiences that were presumed to already have significant knowledge of Tennessee archaeology and American archaeology. These target audiences were professional archaeologists, museum professionals, avocational archaeologists, and artifact collectors. One of our goals for 2015 is to reach out even further with posts designed to inform the average Tennessee citizen about assorted matters (both small and great) in Tennessee archaeology. This post starts out small by examining a bifacial lithic tool that sometimes arises in casual conversations among citizens in Tennessee.

Some Star Trek fans are familiar with the smallest language details written into the scripts for the early television episodes and later movies. One such detail is when Captain Kirk orders Spock and other members of an Enterprise away team to “set your phasers on stun.” At some unknown point in Tennessee history, someone introduced the average Tennessee citizen to the notion that ancient Native Americans in our state could set their projectile weapons on stun.

It was 1960, and I was just 8 years old. At about that time, a relative of mine who collected Native American artifacts took me with him to a plowed field near Portland, Tennessee. I was told we would be spending our afternoon eyeballing the ground surface for something called Indian rocks. This broad term subsumed the term arrowhead, which I already knew about from watching sagebrush sagas on television.

The average man on a Tennessee street in the 1960s knew about as much about Tennessee archaeology as he does now―almost nothing. Raw material for flaked lithic tools was called flint in those days. If a flint artifact had an acute point on its distal end, two sharp blade edges, and an area on the proximal end for hafting it to a wooden or cane shaft, it was called an arrowhead. In reality, most of the so-called arrowheads that people found in plowed fields dated to the Archaic Period (8,000 – 700 B.C.) and were never used on arrows. Instead, they were used as knives or as dart tips for an ancient American dart-throwing device known as the atlatl. This unusual term was derived from the Nahuatl language, which was spoken by the ancient Aztecs in Mexico. Anthropological linguists later classified it as a member of the Uto-Aztecan language family. In Tennessee, use of the atlatl was common throughout the Archaic Period, but its use declined during the later Woodland Period (700 B.C. – A.D. 900), eventually giving way exclusively to the bow and arrow. However, the Aztecs in Mexico were still using the atlatl when Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes and his men arrived on their lands in A.D. 1519.

Our plowed field near Portland exhibited a very high density of prehistoric artifacts dating primarily to the Archaic Period. Even as a child, I knew what prehistoric dart points looked like and found a number of them at various locations as we walked the corn rows. Every once in a while, I was surprised to encounter a dart point that looked as if its tip had been broken off―and the broken area had been finely flaked into an excurvate edge all the way across while also creating a steep, angular profile on the newly flaked edge. Figures 1 and 2 show examples of this commonly found lithic artifact.

Hafted Endscraper I

Figure 1.  Highly Excurvate Putative Stunner

Hafted Endscraper II

Figure 2.  Projectile Point/Knife Flanked by Four Putative Stunners

I asked my uncle why the ancient Native Americans did this reshaping of dart points, and he did not know for sure at that time. Throughout the rest of my childhood, I sometimes wondered why ancient Native Americans did this lithic reworking on the distal ends of broken dart points. There were no Tennessee archaeologists in the Nashville area to consult about the matter, and the poorly stocked Sumner County Memorial Library had no reference books to clear it up.

During my teenage years, a local man and his colloquial wisdom briefly entered my life. To this day, I cannot recall who he was, but he is most likely dead by now. The subject of these rounded-off dart points came up in a conversation with this guy, and the old man’s wisdom flowed forth something like the following:

“Why boy!!! I know what them thangs are. Them’uns is stunners. The Indians used normal arrowheads with sharp points to kill their game, but sometimes they just wanted to stun their prey rather than kill it. They would take a broken arrowhead, round off the end, put it on an arrow, and let the flying force of the arrow stun the game when it hit.”

I did what most teenagers do―look upon such adult wisdom with skepticism. Why would an ancient Native American want to stun an animal when he could just kill it with a single shot? Stun an animal so he could kill it later? Either way, it was going into the boiling bag, so why not just kill the beast outright? Did he want to start a small Native American petting zoo? Considering the frequent and widespread occurrence of this artifact type throughout the Nashville area, that would have been a whole bunch of Archaic Period petting zoos, which seemed a bit left field at best. It also seemed unlikely that the force of a rounded-off point on an atlatl dart or arrow would stun a large animal like a white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginanus). In short, the old man’s explanation made no sense to me.

The old man was indeed wrong. This type of lithic artifact is not a stunner. No such thing as a lithic stunner exists anywhere in Tennessee archaeology today, and it never has at anytime in the past. It is pure mythology. However, this piece of archaeological mythology was not just confined to one old man in the 1960s. Today this stunner mythology still circulates across Tennessee and anywhere else in the United States where this type of lithic artifact is found. It even circulates among people who have at least some knowledge about Native American artifacts―but should know better. If you are ever inclined to visit the many websites where ancient artifacts are bought, sold, and traded, it is not at all unusual to see the words “Stunners for Sale.”

The original source of stunner mythology is apparently unknown. An on-line search using several different keyword queries was conducted in hopes of finding some reliable historical information about who originated this “stunning” notion, where it began, and how it spread. One would think that at least some information about it would be floating around in cyberspace, but this inquiry turned out to be fruitless. On a related and amusing note, in an item published in the 20th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (1896), Gerard Fowke notes that Charles Colcock Jones, Jr., the famous 19th century Georgia historian and antiquarian, believed Native Americans in the southeast designed this artifact as a special projectile tip for shooting off the heads of birds. Why would ancient Native Americans want to shoot off a bird’s head rather than shoot some other part of its body? You can travel back through time and ask C.C. Jones that one.

In archaeological reality, what is this odd lithic artifact? Archaeologists who specialize in prehistoric lithic analysis refer to it as a hafted endscraper or endscraper reworked on a projectile point/knife. The latter is most accurate because other kinds of unifacial and bifacial endscrapers could also be hafted. Most of these endscrapers are made from the proximal ends of accidentally or intentionally broken atlatl dart points or knives―or versions of these artifacts that got resharpened nearly to nubs and cried out for one last alternative use. Archaeologists believe they were hafted to short handles (about 20 cm long). They were used for scraping animal hides and other soft materials such as wood. The steep, angular bit end of this tool is generally considered to have been the ideal geometry for scraping tasks, although some of these ancient endscrapers exhibit sharp, straight edges rather than excurvate, steeply beveled ones. As previously noted, these artifacts are most often found on archaeological sites that date to the Archaic Period in Tennessee, particularly the Middle Archaic Period (6,000 – 2,500 B.C.) and the Late Archaic Period (2,500 – 1,200 B.C.). However, they are not exclusive to such sites, meaning they can also show up in archaeological sites and components dating to later time periods, perhaps sometimes as redeposited artifacts, as curated artifacts that were found and used, or as old projectile points/knives that were found and reshaped for scraping.

Photographs – Mr. Peter A. Bostrom at the Lithic Casting Lab in Troy, Illinois, kindly gave us permission to use his two photographs of endscrapers reworked on projectile points/knives.


One thought on “Oukonunaka – Set Your Atlatl Darts on Stun

  1. Wayne D. Roberts

    Yeah, I know about stunners. I found my first “arrowhead” at age 9. I had wanted to be an archaeologist since I was 5 and this just made that desire greater. I started finding more “arrowheads” and started asking my dad more questions about archaeology. My local library was no help. All of their books on archaeology were about Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Troy. I wanted to know the archaeology of the Indians where I lived. Finally Dad took me to meet a man who had collected over 20,000 “arrowheads” and was an expert. This man showed me some “stunners.” He explained to me that “stunners” were used to kill small animals by the blunt force of the arrow without putting a hole in the hide. Of course this expert had no concept that these stunner “arrowheads” he showed me predated the bow and arrow by thousands of years. The expert also showed me some “spinners.”
    These “spinners” with the edges beveled were made that way to make the arrow spin and be more accurate like rifling in a gun barrel causes the bullet to spin. I’m glad that a few years later a sociologist introduced me to the discipline of anthropology and explained that in America, archaeology is taught as part of anthropology. So, from my experience when I hear anyone mention “stunners” I can’t help but think of “spinners” too.


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