The Tiny True Arrowheads of the Piedmont

Archaeologists, historians and anthropologists have debated for many years about just when ancient people of the world actually began using the hunting and warfare device called the bow and arrow. Today, it is pretty well acknowledged that these primeval tools were used in southern Africa by at least 50,000 years ago. It is also firmly believed that they were being used in Europe before 10,000 years ago. But just how and when did they come to be used in the Americas? And what is the actual origin of the tiny true arrowheads of the Piedmont?

The people, who are now called American Indians, have been in the two New World continents for at least 12,000 years and possibly longer than that. These natives were nomadic hunters and gatherers who roamed the vast lands in search of food and water and shelter for many millennia. They originally used long thrusting spears for hunting the ice age mega fauna and probably for fighting other prehistoric wanderers. These implements gave way to smaller spears or darts that were thrown with the aid of a hand held spear thrower, or as it is commonly known today, an atl-atl. At some point during the last few thousand years the story becomes murky as to these natives use of the spear versus the arrow. There is some information available that seems to suggest that small arrow sized projectile points were being used in northwest Alaska about 4,000 years ago. If that is true and if the bow and arrow was brought across the open Bering Sea those millennia in the past, the instruments had plenty of time to be dispersed throughout the two American continents. Other scientists, though, doubt this information to be correct and instead believe that the natives abruptly adopted, without any previous prototype, the bow and arrow about 1500 years ago which seems to fit the time period for when the small arrow sized projectile points began to appear in quantity. We do know that there were many social, religious and environmental changes at that time, especially in the American Southeast, with the advent of domestic agriculture and the beginnings of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex – so maybe the invention of a completely new tool did fit into those changing times. Did some early genius suddenly take a resilient piece of hickory or locust and string it tightly with a leather thong so a long and straight arrow stick could be sent flying? Or did an ancient seafarer from Africa or Europe land on the shores of one of our continent with the bow and arrow in hand? Or did the instruments indeed come across the cold and almost frozen northwest sea before traveling throughout the land? As usual there are many questions and few definite answers.

The bow and arrow were definitely being used in the Piedmont about 1500 years ago based on scientific analysis of Carbon 14 associated with stone arrow tips that were used during that time period. These people in the Piedmont probably used local woods such as mulberry, cedar, hickory, locust and dogwood to fashion their bows. It is believed that the arrow shafts were made of river cane, black haw, hickory and witch hazel and were tipped with deer antler, gar fish scales, turkey cock spurs and bone as well as chipped stone points. The natives, though, probably continued to use the older short spears or darts and spear throwers for maybe a few hundred years alongside the new weapons. The projectile points used on the darts were usually one to three inches in length and stemmed or basally notched which was the same as had been used for thousands of years. Suddenly though, there appeared smaller and thinner triangular shaped projectile points for use on the smaller arrow shafts. From just where did the idea for these triangles emerge? Did the natives abruptly dream up the bow and arrow and also these small triangular points? Seems unlikely but to be sure, we may never know. Nonetheless appear they did and, while today, we cannot find many remains of the wooden arrow shafts and bows, tens of thousands of stone arrowheads have been discovered. In the Piedmont of Virginia and the Carolinas, there are several types of these points that have been named, described and archaeologically dated over the last eighty of so years of scientific analysis. The larger ones, some of which are called Yadkin (named for the Yadkin River) and Roanoke (named for the Roanoke River) and Badin (named for Badin Lake), probably were among the first and will date to around an AD 500 beginning and were made for hundred years thereafter. They will range in sizes of about one inch in length to occasionally upwards of three inches long and the larger ones may indeed not be true arrowheads – they could have been dart points or even knives. But at least some of these triangles were probably used on small arrow shafts and they continued to be made for almost a millennium, though in progressively smaller sizes. By around AD 1200 true small triangles had come into being and that were most certainly of the sizes to fit into the ¼ inch to 3/8 inch diameter arrow shafts. By AD 1400, these small triangles were becoming commonplace in the Piedmont and today go by names such as Hillisboro (named for Hillisboro, NC), Clarksville (named for Clarksville, VA) and Uwharrie (named for the Uwharrie River). The Hillisboro and Clarksville points are normally straight sided and non-serrated equilateral triangles that are about ½ to 1 inch both in basal width and length with the Hillisboro usually being the smaller of the two. The Uwharrie is more of an isosceles triangle being longer than wide and will vary from ¾ to 1 ½ inches in length and about ½ inches in width. The basal edge and lateral sides of the Uwharrie points are often slightly concave and are usually not serrated. All these points will date to the AD 1400 to 1600 time period with, of course, some being made before and some being made after those dates. They can be made extremely well or very crude which relates directly to the skill of the original flint knapper. The lithic material of choice in the upper Piedmont was rhyolite from the Uwharrie Mountains and occasionally quartz while in the lower Piedmont the natives used rhyolite or coastal plains chert. The aborigines did also use other minerals such as chalcedony, quartzite and argillite but these were chosen at a much lesser extent than rhyolite, quartz and chert. The Clarksville and Hillsboro points are normally found in northern NC and southern VA regions while the Uwharrie points are usually encountered in southern NC counties and into the SC Piedmont.

During this same time period, groups of Indian, who were true disciples of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex way of life, existed in much of current South Carolina, in portions of southern and western North Carolina and in a very few locales in southern Virginia and northern NC. These people were of the Swift Creek or Lamar Culture and, today, are called Pee Dee, so named for the Great Pee Dee River that meanders from the NC-SC border area through the Palmetto State to the Atlantic Ocean. They made narrow arrow points of about ½ inch wide by about one of so inches long , often with slightly concave and serrated sides. They were also known for their small, thin and distinctive pentagonal points that were probably used as knives as well as being projectile points. Their material of choice was rhyolite with few points/knives being made of other minerals which probably was related to the fact that the other raw materials was not readily found near many of their village locales. The Pee Dee Culture seems to have disappeared by around AD 1540 to AD 1600 with the invasion of the Spanish and English and was replaced by cultural entities that the English explorers gave such names as Saponi, Saura, Keyauwee, Eno, Occaneechi and Waccamaw. These people made small and simple triangular and usually non-serrated arrow points about the same size and shapes and with the same materials as the Pee Dee people. These points are, today, called Caraway and are named for examples found at the Keyauwee Site adjacent to Caraway Creek in Randolph County, NC and are probably the most common small triangles found throughout the Piedmont. The Caraway points, like the Uwharrie, are isosceles triangles but usually with straight sides and a concave base and they are often slightly smaller than the Uwharrie points. It is often difficult to differentiate between the Caraway and the Uwharrie points and much misclassification and guesswork is seen. The Indians made these Caraway points until around AD 1725 when the native’s dependence on European trade guns essentially made the bow and arrow obsolete.

Today, many collectors often have the arduous task of distinguishing one triangle from another and that is understandable since they are all so similar in size and shape. In actuality, all these small triangles may be the same arrow points used by the same people for a period of maybe 1500 years – just with different names that have been applied in modern times. And to add to the confusion, there are many other regional labels for these triangles such as Chestnut, James River, Bolar Mountain, Elk Garden, Capron and Potomac which probably relates more to the egos of the naming persons than to the actual points. The prehistoric people of the Archaic Periods used the same styles and sizes of spear/dart points for thousands of years so it would be a reasonable assumption that these later people could have used the same small arrow points for a few hundred years and, in fact, only quit using them because the Europeans brought in guns. The names used for these arrow points are in reality of no great importance. What is of significance is just from where these triangles and the bows and arrows were actually derived? And that is not answerable at this time. Perhaps more research and study in the future will eventually solve these perplexing queries. But as of now, we certainly do know that the Indians used the bow and arrow for hunting and likely for war from about AD 500 and they made and used, for whatever reason and from whatever source, the tiny true arrowheads of the Piedmont.


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