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Prehistoric Texas Main

From Dart to Arrow

Artist's depiction of native people using bows and arrows
Dart tips and arrowpoints found on floor of House 1 suggest that two different weapons systems were used by the rancheria folk. Photo by Milton Bell.
Dart tips and arrowpoints found on floor of House 1 suggest that two different weapons systems were used by the rancheria folk. Photo by Milton Bell.

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Variety of dart points found at the site. As tips on a light spear or dart, these likely were propelled by an ataltl. Photo by Milton Bell.
Variety of dart points found at the site. As tips on a light spear or dart, these likely were propelled by an atlatl. Photo by Milton Bell.

The bow and arrow was a relatively new weapon system in central Texas a thousand years ago when the Graham/Applegate rancheria was inhabited. It had come into use only a few centuries earlier, around A.D. 700, perhaps brought into the region by new migrants, or more likely, simply adopted by the indigenous population. The bow and arrow was spreading across much of North America around this time, replacing the older atlatl and dart as the principal weapon for hunting large game and for warfare. While some aboriginal groups continued to use both weapon technologies, archeological evidence in central Texas seems to point to a rapid and complete replacement of the atlatl and dart by the bow and arrow.

An interesting revelation from the excavations at the Graham/Applegate site is that the hunters who resided in the rancheria were apparently using both kinds of projectile weapons: the atlatl and dart, as well as the bow and arrow. The most convincing evidence for this was uncovered on the floor of House 1, the largest structure at the site. A small stone point that once tipped an arrow was found near two heavier points that probably once armed light spears (darts) that would have been thrown with the atlatl.

The atlatl (or spear thrower) is a short stick, two feet or so in length with a small prong or hook at one end, which was used to throw a light spear or dart. Although simple in design, it is an extremely effective weapon, allowing the user to throw a spear much farther—the length of a football field—than he could without it and with the force necessary to bring down large game . The atlatl is a very ancient weapon—no one really knows how old, but it was in use in the Old World at least 20,000 years ago—and there is a strong likelihood that the earliest people to enter the New World were equipped with it.

On the other hand, the bow and arrow came into use relatively late in the Americas. This weaponry was known to the Late Paleolithic people of Europe over 10,000 years ago, but it appears that the native peoples of the New World only took it up during the last two thousand years. Perhaps the bow and arrow was independently invented somewhere in North America, or, more likely, the technology spread or diffused from the Old World. Unfortunately, archeological evidence documenting the spread of the bow and arrow and the atlatl and dart is largely lacking due to the fact that these weapons were made primarily of wood and other perishable materials.

The history and diffusion of these technologies is traced almost entirely by the stone points used to tip the arrows and darts, artifacts that survive to become part of the archeological record. The larger, heavier dart points were shaped to a large degree by percussion flaking, while the lighter, thin arrow points were mostly pressure flaked. Because they are so small and light, stone arrow points are often called "bird points" by collectors but, in fact, they were used to hunt the same kind of animals as the larger points hafted to darts—deer, antelope, even bison. Only under extraordinary conditions have prehistoric artifacts made from perishable materials survived to the present day in the relatively humid climate of central Texas.

No prehistoric bows are known to have been found in this region, but in a rockshelter near Waco, several fragments of prehistoric arrows were recovered during excavations in the early 1960s. They date to a slightly more recent time than the Austin phase but perhaps offer an indication of the kinds of arrows used by the hunters of the Graham-Applegate rancheria. The main shafts of the arrows were made from cane, and because of their delicacy (and to add forward weight), the front of the shaft was fitted with a short foreshaft of hard wood, the tip of which was notched for the stone arrow point. Virtually all prehistoric arrows that have been found in the United States (mostly in dry caves and rockshelters of the arid Southwest) are made of cane and therefore are extremely light compared to most modern arrows. This explains why such light-weight stone points were attached to them.


Artist's conception of how a dart or spear would have been delivered using an atlatl. Drawing by Ken Brown.
Artist's conception of how a dart or spear would have been delivered using an atlatl. Drawing by Ken Brown.
Small, light-weight points, such as these known as Scallorn from the Graham-Applegate site, tipped arrows used in the new weaponry system adopted around A.D. 700. Forcefully propelled from a bow, even the smallest points could fell game such as deer and bison. The specimen shown at bottom right is smaller than a dime. Photo by Milton Bell.
Small, light-weight points, such as these known as Scallorn from the Graham-Applegate site, tipped arrows used in the new weaponry system adopted around A.D. 700. Forcefully propelled from a bow, even the smallest points could fell game such as deer and bison. The specimen shown at bottom right is smaller than a dime. Photo by Milton Bell.