When Did American Indians Quit Making Flint Arrowheads?

The title of this short post is a digital search term that caused a net surfer to land on the Archaeology in Tennessee blog yesterday. Unfortunately, this person did not find an answer to their question on the blog because I had never written anything on this subject. So, quick and dirty just off the top of my head, here are a couple of useful answers:

(1) As the poor kids in the Middle Tennessee neighborhood where I grew up used to say in response to similar questions:

“Any time they won’ted to.”

There may be more truth in that simple statement than you might otherwise imagine. Read Item No. 2 below, and I think you will see why. It probably involved an individual decision that confronted different Native American males on different days and in different places and times in the courses of their normal lives. In addition, such a decision involved the availability of the basic resources necessary to make nonflint arrow points.

(2) Chert projectile points had one huge problem throughout the many millennia before Europeans reached the shores of the New World. Chert (better known to some as flint) is a cryptocrystalline silicate stone that is very dense and brittle—almost like window glass—but not quite fully there.  That made it easy to break. Ancient Native Americans who used atlatl dart points and arrow points made of chert would often fire their projectile, only to have its chert tip hit something hard and easily break.

The ancient Native Americans in Tennessee and the rest of North America never really learned how to smelt metals.  The best they could do with metals, usually copper, was to find naturally occurring nuggets and malleably craft them into certain shapes by beating them with primitive tools and sometimes applying limited heat from a fire (a process called annealing) to help with the pounding and shaping process. The ancient Old Copper Complex sites in areas near the Great Lakes are famous for yielding projectile points, lance points, and other tools made by working copper nuggets. However, in the ancient United States, the making and use of copper projectile points was never frequent or widespread. Chipped stone projectile points were overwhelmingly dominant throughout the prehistory of our country.

Then some fine Thursday, not too long after Christopher Columbus arrived on a Caribbean island in 1492, Europeans showed up on the shores of the mainland United States. Their ancient Caucasian ancestors had learned how to smelt and alloy various metals (iron, bronze, copper, lead, tin, etc.).  European trading with the Native American populations began. Various European objects made of metal went coursing along the ancient trails of the United States, and metal objects of European origin started showing up for use in Native American villages, hamlets, and camps. Such objects included, but were not limited to, items of military armament and protection, sewing needles, thimbles, cooking pots and other kitchen items, jingling Spanish bells, items of personal decoration, and so forth.

The Native Americans quickly learned that items made of iron would break, but items made of copper, brass, bronze, or silver would bend rather than break. Moreover, Native Americans discovered that metal tools and weapons would take sharper edges than bifacial stone tools and would last longer without breaking. As such metals became more easily and consistently available to Native Americans, the use of stone tools began to wane. However, this cultural change was not immediate in all places. It occurred gradually over time. Eventually, just like video killed the radio star in the 1980s, metal projectile points and firearms killed the chipped stone projectile point.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, performed numerous archaeological excavations on Historic period Overhill Cherokee village sites (sometimes called “towns”) in the Little Tennessee River valley—all as part of the Tellico Archaeological Project in the 1960s and 1970s. Numerous metal objects were found during these excavations. For example, at the Tommotley site (the third largest Overhill village) in 1976, Ann Maginnis and I spent a big part of a day delicately excavating a Cherokee burial (Burial 83), which included many metal sewing thimbles as burial furniture. These were all metal items that had been traded into the site by people of European origins.

Native American metal cooking pots, obtained through trade with Europeans, eventually wore out or acquired unfixable holes. One of the popular things Native Americans did in the Historic period was to make projectile points out of the thin walls and bottoms of expended copper, steel, or brass cooking pots. Using traded in metal  shears, they would just cut the metal into thin pieces of the desired shape, somewhat similar to modern Xacto knife blades, and haft them onto the ends of arrows. They were then ready to go hunting or go to war with an arrow point that would bend—but not break like chert arrow points. If a copper point got bent, they just quickly straightened it back out, and they were ready to go.

Therefore, discounting the far earlier Old Copper Complex, the Native American transition from chert projectile points to metal projectile points (and later firearms) occurred during the Historic period (broadly 1513 – Present A.D. in the American Southeast.) The beginning of the Historic period varies across the vast geographic areas of the United States. It usually begins with the date of first European contact in a particular geographic region and lasts to the present day. For example, the Historic period here in the mainland United States began in the 1500s in places like Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California because the earliest Spanish conquistadors made their first contacts with mainland Native Americans in the 16th century.  Technically, here in Tennessee, the Historic period really begins with the first contact between Native Americans and the Hernando Desoto Expedition—shortly after the year 1540 A.D. This occurred first in East Tennessee. However, more generally for the whole state of Tennessee, archaeologists will often kind of ignore Desoto and designate the Historic period more generally as 1600 A.D. to the present day.

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