Prehistoric Pointy Things

If you were walking down the street and stumbled upon a screwdriver on the sidewalk, it wouldn't be hard to picture the handyman who accidentally dropped it out of his toolbox on his way to the next job. If it piqued your interest, you could picture him using it to assemble something. You could imagine him taking a break to eat a sandwich for lunch, or finishing up his day and going home to walk the dog.

This kind of mental journey is a little harder to embark on when contemplating the tools left behind by the people who lived where we do many, many thousands of years ago. What does an atlatl or a bannerstone bring to mind? Can you picture its owner, or where they lived and what they ate for breakfast?

By way of the items in our Single-Owner Collection of Prehistoric Indian Artifacts we paint a picture for you of life in North Carolina from the time of the PaleoIndians who lived here at the end of the Ice Age up to when the Native Americans came in contact with European colonists. Below, these items go from pointy rocks to pictures of a life.

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Rhyolite Projectile Points
Chipped projectile points like the one below have been found all across the continental United States, tracing the path of the very first people to move from the Bering Land Bridge on to mainland America at the end of the last ice age. The vast range over which these projectile points have been found tells us that these people spread quickly over the continent as the food chain developed. The ice melted, the plants grew, the animals spread to eat the plants, and the people followed to hunt the animals, leaving their hunting tools in their wake.

The projectile points from this era found in North Carolina are widely dispersed and rare. The fact that these points haven't often been found in groups or with evidence of other settlement tells us that their owners didn't travel in tribes, and they didn't stay in one place for long. These points were most often made of rhyolite, which was sharp enough to be effective for hunting but soft enough to be shape-able. The points have been found hundreds of miles from the nearest rhyolite deposits, so we know that people searched out the rock to make their tools and then carried them with them on their hunt for food.

Points like these haven't been found in North Carolina with the remains of the megafauna (mastodons, etc.) with which they've been found elsewhere. So by the time people reached this region most of those animals had likely died out. Our local prehistoric people more likely hunted animals like deer and caribou. They also probably traveled around to take advantage of the plant and animal life available in different areas during different seasons. For instance, summer would find them nearer to the coast for fishing, while in winter they would hunt bigger game in the mountains.

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Late Paleo Hardaway Point

Nutting Stones
Nutting stones - rocks with dents that could hold a nut in place while its shell was cracked open - are one of the most ubiquitous artifacts of prehistoric man. Anthropologists differ on what they were used for - in addition to cracking nuts, they could have been for grinding pigments or medicines, starting fires, or all of the above. Nutting stones are sometimes called "opportunistic tools" in that it can be hard to tell if the divots that made them useful were man-made or naturally occurring. They were apparently discarded with abandon, so it's possible that early humans took advantage of these rocks when they found them and then just left them behind and looked for another suitably dented rock when the need arose. One thing is certain, though - nutting stones are sound evidence that these people did more than just hunt.

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Four Ancient Stone Pestles and a Nutting Stone

Axes and Celts
For many years, popular culture was replete with images of Native Americans brandishing tomahawks on bloody rampages. But before white men brought steel to America, Native Americans rarely used axes as weapons. Instead, they were tools, usually used to chop and gather firewood, and on occasion to carve things. Some axes were grooved like the one below so that they could be lashed to a wooden handle. Others, known as celts, were smooth. Axe-wielding Native Americans were basically just our current-day handyman, minus the sandwich.

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Massive Raised Ridge Full Grooved Axe

Bannerstones, Pipes, and Pottery
As time went on and the Eastern North American environment continued to change, our prehistoric forbears began to coalesce into settlements with more social customs and interrelated needs. At first they lived in small villages along streambeds, and then gradually in larger settlements that endured for many years. It is at these sites that more advanced tools and artifacts have been found. Items like the bannerstone below, and some of the more elaborate pipes and pottery in our sale, which clearly took extensive effort, skill and time to create, demonstrate that value was given to that kind of labor, and that efficiences in subsistence had been realized to allow room for that kind of craftsmanship. People were no longer living from one harrowing encounter with a predator to the next.

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Fluted Tube Bannerstone

Bannerstones like the one above were used to weight an atlatl - a spear extension that gave the spear-thrower extra leverage. But a bumpy rock would likely weight an atlatl as effectively as a beautifully polished one. Similarly, things could be (and had been) burned and their smoke inhaled from a misshapen rock just as easily as from a rock carved into a bird like the one below. There must have been some added value - hierarchichal, symbolic, or otherwise - to having one's spear weight be shiny and one's pipe figural.
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North Carolina Clay Bird Effigy Platform Pipe

So now we can imagine a little more about the day to day life of the people whose things we find in our plowed fields. They didn't go home to walk their dogs, but they did walk - a lot. And next time you trip over something pointy on the ground, perhaps a complete picture of a lifestyle will open up to you.

Explore the complete catalog of An Old-Time Collection of Prehistoric Indian Artifacts

Content created by the Leland Little editorial team