Collecting Native American projectile points, or arrowheads as they are commonly called, has been a popular pastime for generations of history enthusiasts. In prehistoric North America, projectile points were designed to be fastened to the ends of spears, darts, and arrow shafts. While points were made from antler, bone, and copper, most—at least most that have been preserved—were made from stone.
Projectile Points vs. Arrowheads
The term arrowhead is a misleading descriptor, as not all projectile points were part of a bow-and-arrow weapon system. Projectile point styles changed through time, mostly due to innovations in weapon/technological systems.
Broadly speaking, projectile points can be grouped into two general categories: dart points and arrow points. Dart points are typically larger, older, and mostly associated with spear and/or atlatl weapon systems. Arrow points are smaller, newer, and were attached to an arrow shaft for use with a bow.
Dating Projectile Points
While Native American tribes define their own histories, archaeologists and anthropologists have assigned time periods to Native American history to compare shifts in culture, social organization, patterns of settlement, subsistence methods, and tool technology.
Projectile points, along with other artifacts, are interpreted and dated within the continuum of these Indigenous cultural periods, typically defined as the Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Woodland.
These time periods often overlap, and are further divided into stages, defined as Early, Middle, Late, and Transitional, for more a distinct understanding of culture change along the continuum.
Native American lifeways differed regionally based on environment, access to resources, and cultural traditions. With respect to such regional differences, the following cultural periods are described within the context of the American Southeast.
Paleo-Indian Period (12,000 to 8,000 BC):
Nomadic hunter-gatherers migrated to the North American continent at the end of the last ice age. Temperatures were frigid and large animals, such as giant beavers, mastodons, and wooly mammoth were abundant. Clovis points, which are long, fluted chipped stone projectile points, were used to fell such megafauna.
Paleo-Indians lived in social groups of 20 to 60 people, were relatively non-hierarchical, and politically egalitarian. These groups hunted and stored supplies during the warmer spring and summer months, then broke into smaller family groups for fall and winter.
Harvested animals supplied the protein rich diet needed to sustain the nomadic people, while also providing them with animal hides for clothing and shelter construction.
Archaic Period (8,000 to 3,000 BC):
Over the course of several millennia, temperatures warmed and the environment dried, shepherding in new species of trees and foliage. Populations grew, with archeological evidence suggesting that there was a presence of larger settlements and more diversification among the Indigenous groups.
Long-distance trade was established, and subsistence economies were created through the exploitation of nuts, seeds, and shellfish. The first inland shell middens were constructed, along with monumental earthwork mound complexes.
Cultural developments included the use of notched and stemmed projectile points, the atlatl, containers of stone and pottery, and ground and polished stone artifacts.
Woodland Period (3,000 BC to 1,670 AD):
This cultural period is marked by the manufacture of ceramic vessels, construction of mounds, cultivation of maize, distribution of exotic raw materials and finished goods, horticultural activity, and the use of bow-and-arrow weapon systems.
Pottery technology improved, allowing containers to be made in a variety of shapes and sizes for cooking, storing, and serving food. A Woodland Period artifact assemblage would include complicated stamped pottery and triangular points.
Projectile Point Identification & Dating Guide [Infographic]
The following infographic is not all inclusive for the various types of points you may encounter in the southeast; instead, it should be used as a guide to better estimate the type and age of the projectile points you may encounter in the field.