Pointed Weapons of Wood, Bone, and Ivory: Survival Tools of Early Man in North America PDF Print E-mail
Pointed Weapons of Wood, Bone, and Ivory: Survival Tools of Early Man in North America
Floyd Painter, Norfolk, Virginia


Early Man quite possibly arrived from Asia armed only with spearpoints of bone, ivory, or fire-hardened wood. The familiar Clovis "fluted points" and other lithic points equally old or even older than Clovis, may have evolved later in time due to increasing lithic technology or a need or stimulus related to changing killing methods or the type of animals being slaughtered. Bone spear points alone have been found with some kill-site discoveries, while in others (possibly later in time) both bone and lithic spearpoints were used in making the kill. Bone and ivory weapon tips of several recurring types from many areas of Europe, Asia, and North America are studied in this paper and interpretative sugges­tions are made as to their use, morphology, and purpose.

Man is one of nature's weaklings; though of a carnivorous or predatorial species, he lacks the physical strength and agility to fight his preda­tory enemies, even those smaller than himself. He, in his natural state, is a physically defense­less animal, lacking fangs, claws, horns, hooves, or tusks. As a runner he is not fast enough to escape even the slowest of his predators. As a climber he is not agile enough to outclimb his once greatest enemies, the leopard, panther, and the giant tree snakes. Perhaps in his earlier evolving forms, the major asset that saved him from being eaten to extinction by carnivorous animals was the fact that in his natural, unwashed state, he was blessed with a very strong body odor. This terrible odor, unlike that of any other animal, was repugnant to the great carnivorous cats such as tigers and lions. They would kill and eat man only as a last, or starving resort (L. S. B. Leakey, pers. comm. 1967).

Early Man had developed other physical and mental assets, however, that his predatory ene­mies lacked. Man walked upright, had grasping hands, opposing thumbs, and an inventive mind. He was able to hurl an object with great accura­cy and velocity, to thrust with his body weight, and to strike downward with great force. These assets have made him truly the sovereign of beasts, the "lord of the jungle" as it were. What he lacked in strength, agility, and physical weapons of defense he more than made up for by utilizing as weapons the objects he found lying underfoot. Few predators can face up to a bar­rage of rocks, a wooden pole thrust into his mouth or body, or being beaten with heavy bones or clubs of wood. There is usually safety in num­bers, and man, a gregarious animal, ganged up on his enemies.

Later in time, Early Man learned not to depend upon chance to furnish him a defensive weapon; there might not always be a rock, bone, wooden club or long pole near at hand when he most needed it. He learned to carry such weapons with him as he foraged for food, and he learned to use his weapons offensively in hunt­ing as well as defensively when he, himself, was being hunted. He learned to select his weapons by weight, length, and balance, and to modify them slightly to fit his purposes or to make them more effective. He began to sharpen the heavy end of his wooden poles and they became spears; he chose wood or bone clubs with heavy knotted ends or sharp projections. Thus equipped, Man then set out to conquer the whole earth. And con­quer the world, he surely did. From a starting point in either Africa, the Middle East, or south­ern Asia, and armed only with a club and a spear, he, in time, occupied every habitable cor­ner of the Earth.

At a time period of possibly 40,000 years ago Early Man had arrived in eastern Siberia, the northeasternmost land area of the continent of Asia. This was during the fourth or last great Ice Age, called the "Wurm" in Europe and Asia and the "Wisconsin" in North America. Three times during the "Wisconsin" the sea level was lowered as much as 400 feet by the retention of water in the form of great ice caps or glaciers that covered much of the northern regions of Europe, Asia, and North America. During these three intervals the seas were lowered enough to turn the shal­lows of what is now Bering Strait into a wide bridge of land connecting the continents of Asia and North America, a land bridge that Early Man with his then limited knowledge and prim­itive tools and weapons could have crossed.

The dry land thus exposed by the three inter­vals of lowered sea levels is now called "Beringia," and the three different intervals of exposure have been dated by geologists. The dated intervals are 35,000 to 32,000 years B.P.; 28,000 to 25,000 years B.P. and 20,000 to 13,000 years B.P. Early Man was capable of, and proba­bly did cross Beringia during all three intervals of exposure, but what interests us in this paper are the oldest dates: i.e., 35,000 to 32,000 years B.P.

What we mean by the term "Early Man" in this paper does not necessarily denote that they were "Homo sapiens sapiens" (present-day man), but anyone of the more ancient types of the genus "Homo" who later evolved into the modern Homo sapien sapien. "The discovery of early complexes in Siberia and the Far East in recent years does not exclude, but rather proposes, that the first discoverer of the New World was not even Homo sapiens, but a more ancient creature at the paleo-anthropine stage, but already pos­sessing clearly expressed sapien-like features -which passed through Beringia earlier than 35,000 years ago" (Derevianko, 1978). To this statement we must agree, at least in part.


Fig. 1 The proposed "Ramming Method" of executing mammoth.

At the time period of possibly 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, Early Man had evolved into the four distinct racial types that exist today. The four principal types recognized at present are Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Australoid, and Negroid, plus many mixtures, divisions, sub-types and hybrids of the four distinct types. This does not mean, however, that the men who first reached Siberia and crossed Beringia into North America were one of these newly-developed distinct types, but rather more likely an earlier and still evolving form of Early Man who lived on the far fringes of the gene pools that produced the dis­tinct types.

The majority of American Indians (Amerinds) living today in both Americas seem to represent hybrid types produced by the mixing of Mongoloid and Simitic Caucasoid genes far back in the mists of time. This mixing may have taken place in northeastern Asia (Siberia) before the distinct types evolved, but more than likely after Early Man's arrival in the Americas. Only the late-comers, the Eskimos or Inuits, are truly Mongoloid, a distinct racial type.

In any event, Early Man arrived in North America by way of Siberia and Beringia equipped with all the tools and weapons essen­tial to his survival in a harsh environment, and they were surprisingly few in number. Russian archaeologists have excavated numerous sites in Siberia, and many of these contain stratified occupation levels dating back to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic Period of eastern Siberia. The earliest dated cultural level (Ust-Mil' II site) is 35,400 years B.P., with undated cultural zones even deeper (Mochanov 1978). This means, of course, that if Early Man was in eastern Siberia 35,000 years ago, he could well have been in Beringia and North America at about the same year, for the Beringian land-bridge was open during that period.

A tool inventory recovered from this dated level does not include spearpoints or weapons of wood, bone, ivory or stone, yet these people were hunters of big game and must have used offen­sive and defensive weapons. The tool inventory does include bifacially worked oval knives, chop­pers, blade and flake cores, end scrapers and two different types of burins. Knives,end scrapers, and burins are wood and bone working tools and it follows that spearheads were being made of wood, bone, or ivory and that these weapons have presumably long since decayed to dust.

During the interval of land-bridge exposure between 28,000 years and 25,000 years BP there is little perceptible change in the lithic tool inventory. Still no lithic projectile points were being made and we must conclude that weapons were being manufactured of wood, bone, or ivory, though none were found.

So, we have two periods totalling 6,000 years of exposed land linking the two continents in which Early Man (the Diuktai Culture, Mochanov, 1978) lacking any form of lithic pro­jectile points, could have crossed dry-shod into North America. Early Man (Diuktai Culture) had occupied all of ice-free eastern Siberia dur­ing these two periods and there is no logical rea­son why he could not, in the course of his nomadic existence, have crossed the flat plain of Beringia into North America. Lacking stone pro­jectile points posed no problem to him since there is little doubt he possessed weapon points of wood, bone, or ivory.

During the last and longest interval of land-bridge exposure, 20,000 years B.P to 13,000 years B.P., the people inhabiting Diuktai Cave and other Diuktai sites in eastern Siberia had made great progress. By at least 18,000 years B.P. they had begun manufacturing lithic spear-points. They were making bifacially flaked spearpoints of an elongated willow-leaf shape, and were not only making them of lithic materi­als but of flaked ivory as well (Mochanov, 1978). If Early Man walked into North America bearing lithic spearpoints, it could have been no earlier than 18,000 to 20,000 years B.P. We believe, however, that his predecessors using spearheads of wood, bone, and ivory had reached North and even South America thousands of years before that time.

We also believe that these leaf-shaped points of the Diuktai people were not ancestral to the Clovis fluted point, but were the direct ancestors of the Great Basin projectile point types of the Northwestern States and the Lerma types of Mexico and the Southwest. The later Clovis flut­ed points, we believe, were an American inven­tion, and had their beginnings in what is now the Southeastern United States (Painter, 1983).

We also feel certain (but still lack proof) that Early Man had long been adapted to a coastal environment in Siberia before making his way slowly eastward along the southern coast of Beringia and Alaska, then southward along the exposed Pacific continental shelf. This has long been the theory of Knut R. Fladmark of Simon Fraser University (Fladmark, 1983) and is slow­ly gaining acceptance among Early Man schol­ars. The warming effect of the Japanese Current and the constant availability of food make this route much more logical for this early time peri­od than the much touted IceFree Corridor migra­tion route long accepted by many. This cold, nar­row, inhospitable, inland path between two great ice sheets stretched for 1000 miles between the Arctic and the northern Great Plains. This low, narrow gap between the ice-covered Rocky Mountains on the west and the mile-or-more­high Laurentide ice cap on the east may have funneled cold Arctic air southward during all seasons. "The implication that the Ice-Free Corridor was little more than a frigid windtun­nel does not improve its prospects for Early Man" (Fladmark, 1983).

A coastal migration route would have led Early Man into what is now Washington, Oregon, California, Mexico and Central America, then onward to South America in due course. A coastal route would also explain why we have earlier dates for Early Man in South America than anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains, and why the earliest sites in South America do not contain lithic projectile points.

What proof have we that Early Man possessed spearpoints of wood, bone or ivory and that he entered the New World before lithic spearpoints evolved? Pointed shafts or spears of hard wood were logically Early Man's first and only option far, far, back in time, and long before he learned to shape bone and chip stone tools. Wooden

objects decay very rapidly and the chances of a wooden spear being preserved for many thou­sands of years are very slim indeed; however, at least two examples have been found in Europe. "The only weapons certainly attributable to Lower Paleolithic man are wooden spears with tips pointed and hardened in the fire like those found in interglacial deposits at Clacton, Essex, and Lohringen, Lower Saxony (Clark, 1967.)" These two spears found in England and Germany date to about 300,000 years B.P. dur­ing the early part of the Riis Glaciation. Lacking positive proof, we can only surmise, and logical­ly so, that Early Man did indeed possess wooden spears when he arrived in the Americas, that he had possessed them for untold thousands of years and would continue to use them for many thousands more. Wooden spears and arrowheads were used until very recently (and may in fact still be in use) by various primitive groups in tropical regions of the earth. The museums of the world contain thousands of examples.

Since bone and ivory spearpoints are much more durable, we have many hundreds of exam­ples left by Early Man in Europe, Central Asia, Northeast Asia (Siberia), Alaska, and various other places in North America. They have been found at sites in the Pacific Coastal states, the Great Plains, the Gulf Coast, and last but not least, Florida, where they abound. "They are the most common tool in Florida Paleo-Indian sites (Waller, 1983)."

Bone and ivory spearheads have been found singly and in both small and large concentra­tions in North America, in killsites, campsites, and gravesites, unassociated with lithic projec­tile points in some cases and in unmistaken association in many others. Curiously, but not too surprisingly, most bone and ivory spear-points found in North America are identical in design to several types found in Europe and Asia. Whether this sameness is the result of dif­fusion or independent invention is at present impossible to determine.


These long, tapered, cylindrical bone and ivory spearpoints, some pointed on both ends, others pointed on one end and beveled on the other end (sometimes with cross-striations on the beveled surface), and the types sometimes called "fore-shafts" that are beveled and striated on both ends, all have their counterparts in Europe, Asia, and North America (Figure 1). The oldest C-14 dated points of these types were found in the Lower Perigordian and Aurignacian "0" cul­tural epochs in Europe and date back to at least 32,000 years B.P. (Bordes, 1968). These bone and ivory spearpoint types were all well developed at that time period and must have evolved long before 32,000 B.P. Since these types are as wide­ly spread as Alaska, Florida, the Southwest, and the Great Plains, it is possible that they were already in North America before the Perigordian and Aurignacian cultural periods in Europe. A search of the available literature reveals that bone and ivory spearheads were found in the fol­lowing sites and locations in North America:

Alaska - A placer mining site near Goldstream, Tanana Valley, Central Alaska, has yielded two bone projectile points that were pointed on one end and beveled and cross-striated on the other end. These points were found in Pleistocene muck and associated with a "Yuma" type lithic projectile point (Rainey, 1939).

Washington - The point of a bone spearhead was found imbedded and broken off in a mastodon's rib at the Manis Site, Olympic Penninsula, Washington state. The rib showed partial healing, proving it to be an old wound. The skeleton of the mastodon was found in a pond or bog and dated to almost 12,000 years B.P. The bones showed signs of butchering, how­ever, proving that man had attacked again and had slain the mastodon at last (Gustafson and Daugherty, 1978).

Washington - Four fragments of a bone spear­head or foreshaft were found at the Marmes Site in southeastern Washington state. Indications are that the original length of the implement was perhaps 220 mm. before breakage occurred. The fragments were found associated with por­tions of a human skeleton and dated between 10,000 and 11,000 years BP (Fryxell, et. al., 1968) Evidence suggests that the human remains found with the bone implement repre­sent a person that had been eaten by his fellows.

Washington - The Lind Coulee Site in south­eastern Washington has yielded three long, bone projectile points. One of these was serrated or barbed along one side; another, with a sharp point, was wedge-shaped on the opposite end. The last had a blunt point and was broken on the other end. This site has been dated between 9,000 and 10,000 years B.P (Daugherty, 1956).

Washington - Long, smooth bone points were found at a 9,000 B.P salmon fishing site at The Dalles on the Columbia River in southern Washington state. These are thought to be por­tions ofleister fishing spears (Kirk and Daugherty, 1978.) This opinion agrees with the theories of the writer of this report (Painter, 1983).

California - Three broken bone weapon tips were found with bone scraps and ivory shims at what was perhaps a mammoth kill site on the ancient shore of China Lake, a dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. These bone tips were found with the remains of Mammoth #9, in the middle of the CRBR embay­ment of China Lake (Davis, 1978).

California - A long, fossilized bone point was found on a site on Lower Klamath Lake in north­ern California. This point was stained by the blue silts of the lake; mammoth bones from the same locality were also stained blue. The bone point was sharp at one end and beveled at the other (Cressman, 1942). These bone objects are sometimes referred to as bone foreshafts in many reports.

Saskatchewan - A fossilized bone projectile point was found in the early 1900s near Grenfel, Saskatchewan. The point was found during an excavation of a waterhole in an ancient slough, and was discovered at a depth of 8 feet. No asso­ciations with man, animal, or other artifacts were noted. The projectile point is 207 mm in length and has a diameter of 12.5 to 15 mm and is thought to be mammoth or mastodon bone judging by its thickness (Wilmeth, 1968). The object tapers to a blunt point on one end and is broken on the other. At the time when it was found, no others of this type had been reported and the discovery was long before Folsom and Clovis points were known.

Montana - The Anzick site, a collapsed rock-shelter near Wilsal, northwestern Montana, has yielded the first known Clovis burial, plus over 100 stone and bone artifacts. The burial assem­blage contained the remains of two sub-adults plus the artifacts and all were covered with red ochre (Lahren and Bonnichsen, 1974). Among the artifacts recovered after the rock-shelter had been destroyed by a front-end loader were seven Clovis fluted points and eleven fragments of bone spearheads. These bone fragments were fit­ted back together to reconstruct one section that has a blunt pointed end and a beveled and cross-striated opposite end, and one long section that is beveled and cross-striated on both ends. The remaining fragments consist of five broken mid­sections and four beveled and cross-striated ends (Lahren and Bonnichsen, 1974). These authors have attempted to reconstruct these fragments as fore shafts for Clovis fluted points, with a rather flimsy manner of hafting the Clovis point to the socalled foreshaft. The writer of this report disagrees with their proposed reconstruc­tions and will propose other, more logical uses for these bone shafts.

Wyoming - The Agate Basin site in eastern Wyoming has yielded bone projectile points in the bison bone beds of the Folsom Period level and an ivory projectile point in the Clovis level of this ancient bison kill site (Frison and Zeimens, 1980). The Folsom level points, three in number, are tapered to a point on one end and cut off at a slight angle on the opposite end; all are broken but can be reconstructed. They average about 250 mm in length and 8.5 to 9 7 mm in diameter. The ivory projectile point from the Clovis level is both longer and larger in diameter than the bone Folsom points. The Clovis specimen is 200 mm in length with an undetermined amount broken off and it measures about 18 mm in diameter. It is beveled and cross-striated on one end and bro­ken off on the opposite, but appears to be taper­ing toward a point. Frison and Zeimens state that "It seems very unlikely that either the Clovis or Folsom specimens can be regarded as any kind of foreshaft." With this viewpoint the author of this report fully agrees.


Fig. 3: Mended bone and ivory needle spears and their components.


New Mexico - Blackwater Draw, the original Clovis type site, produced the first two bone spearhead elements associated with mammoth remains. One bone spearhead portion was found in the sand at the distal end of a mammoth ulna. This bone spearhead portion is beveled and cross-striated on both ends, while the other example is pointed at one end and beveled and cross-striated at the opposite end (Cotter, 1937). These bone points found at Clovis in eastern New Mexico are identical to points found in Europe, Alaska, and Florida. Cotter, (1937) rec­ognized them as bone projectile point elements.

Texas - McFaddin Beach, in the extreme southeast corner of Texas, is a Gulf of Mexico sand beach extending thirteen miles from the Sea Rim Marsh to High Island, Texas. This stretch of beach is one continuous archaeological site where at least fourteen Clovis fluted points have been found, plus more than 160 other Indian artifacts of later time periods, principally Early Archaic. It is also a source of fossil bone material representing many extinct types of fauna, all washed up from offshore beds of Pleistocene age. Among this array of material is one bone projectile point, a tapered, pointed cylinder of fossilized bone 130 mm in length with a large diameter of 14 mm. Broken at one end, pointed at the other, it was definitely shaped by the hand of man (Long, 1977).

The Paleo-Indian sites of Florida that contain bone and ivory weapon points are without excep­tion underwater sites, and the projectile points were recovered by scuba divers. These weapon tips of bone and ivory were recovered from off­shore in the Atlantic Ocean, sinkhole springs, and inland rivers of central, northern and north­western Florida. These bone and ivory spear­heads are called by the divers "bone pins" and they usually make no distinction between dou­ble-pointed, double-beveled, pointed and beveled, bone or ivory. In their reports and pub­lications, all are called by the generic term "bone pins." Unknown hundreds ofthese "bone pins" are in the private collections of skin and scuba divers in Florida and southern Georgia.  A great collection of these bone and ivory spearpoints and leister fishspear points are in the Florida State Museum at Gainesville, however, and this writer has examined a great number of speci­mens in company with Ripley and Adelaide Bullen in the museum storeroom.  This writer has talked with Ben Waller and other divers about the subject and viewed their collections.  An unbelievable mass of Paleo-Indian lithic and bone material lies unreported and unstudied in these private collections and museums of Florida.  In an interview with Ben I. Waller recently published in the Florida Anthropologist (Volume 26, Numbers 1-2, March-June 1983), the interviewer asks "Do you think bone pins are an important Paleo tool?" Ben answered, "Yes. Of course, I've been pushing that idea for years. I totally believe that they are the most common Paleo tool found in Florida. When I say pins, I am generally speaking of a double-pointed vari­ety" (Dunbar, 1983). Ben Waller once told this writer that he and others had recovered over eighty bone pins among the bones of a mammoth in a northern Florida river.  What a battle it took to bring this behemoth down.