Projectile points, sometimes just called "points," are sharp tools, such as the spearhead in this photograph. Most ancient projectile points were made of stone or bone. The large spearhead above was crafted from obsidian, a type of volcanic glass.

Archaeologists and anthropologists sometimes classify a site or an entire culture by the shape of the projectile points found in the area. The presence of a particular style or type of point helps identify the time period in which it was made, and by what tradition or culture. Anthropologists have classified more than a hundred distinct points in North America.

This spear point, for instance, has a stemmed shape, owing to the rounded stem at the bottom. Points are further identified by the size and shape of their stems and shoulders. (The shoulders of a projectile point are at its non-pointed end.) These and other clues help place this point in the Adena or Hopewell tradition of the Ohio River Valley.

Points like this one were attached to long, powerful spears usually made of wood. Spears were used for hunting and warfare.

  1. Spearheads are one of the largest types of projectile points. What are other uses for projectile points?

    • Answer

      The most familiar uses for projectile points are probably arrowheads and blades (knives).

  2. Stone Age societies made projectile points out of stone (such as obsidian) and bone. What materials eventually replaced stone for making projectile points and other tools?

    • Answer

      Metals, such as copper, iron, and bronze, were harder and longer-lasting than stone tools.

  3. This spear point was found in what is now the U.S. state of Ohio. It probably dates from around 200 BCE-500 CE. What animals do you think prehistoric people hunted with this type of spear?

    • Answer

      Ancient Native Americans probably hunted a wide variety of game: deer, bison, bear, beaver, and elk are just some of the large animals abundant in the area. This spear was probably far too large and unwieldy to hunt smaller mammals, birds, or fish, although these animals were also important food sources.

      Thousands of years earlier, prehistoric North Americans used similar stone points to hunt prey such as mammoths and mastodons.

ancient
Adjective

very old.

anthropologist
Noun

person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.

archaeologist
Noun

person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

bone
adjective, noun

structure composing the skeleton of vertebrate animals.

classify
Verb

to identify or arrange by specific type or characteristic.

culture
Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

Hopewell
Noun

(500 BCE-200 CE) people and cultures of a trading network in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys of North America.

hunt
Verb

to pursue and kill an animal, usually for food.

obsidian
Noun

black glass formed as lava cools above ground.

projectile point
Noun

archaeological term used to describe a sharp stone tool that could be thrown (projected), such as an arrowhead, spearhead, dart, or blade.

spear
Noun

weapon made of a long metal or wooden shaft with a sharp, pointed end.

stone
Noun

piece of rock.

volcanic glass
Noun

hard, brittle substance produced by lava cooling very quickly.

warfare
Noun

armed conflict between two or more groups of people, usually representing different nations or other political organizations.