Indian arrow heads and tools

These flint and stone arrow heads are flanked by very early, and very crude, spear points.
A page from George Catlin’s 1833 notebook. Some of the arrow heads and the spear points are made from iron and were obtained from white traders.

Robin Barkes tells of a trip to the United States, during which he had the opportunity to collect a number of ancient Indian arrow heads and other implements.

When I was young I went through a bow-and-arrow craze that was brought on by watching the swashbuckling Errol Flynn in his film The Adventures of Robin Hood. My bows weren’t up to much, but much to my parent’s horror, I produced a pretty deadly missile tipped with a piece of bloudraad, flattened and then shaped like a bushman’s arrow. With this I skewered a dove sitting in the branches of the tall pine tree in our backyard – my first ever kill. This was before my uncle Phil gave me my first pellet gun – a Daisy Red Ryder – and I spent hours after school hunting with my ’bonenarrow’. Later, influenced by the cowboy films of the fifties, I got more into guns and never pursued my limited archery skills, although they certainly taught me the art of stalking and the patience of still hunting. However, my interest in primitive bows and arrows never left me and even today I like reading about how the ancient hunters made their weapons for hunting and war.

A few years back, while on a trip to America, I was lucky enough to be taken on a hunt for old arrow heads along the banks of the Bosque river near Waco, Texas. The river at that time was a mere trickle, so much of the bed was exposed to reveal treasures usually hidden below the highwater mark. It took me a while to get my eye in because piles and piles of flint stones lay around. Finally I struck “gold”. There in front of me lay a beautiful, flaked piece of flintstone. I realised that what I held in my hands was too big to be an arrow head and therefore must be a spear head. This was confirmed by the expert with me, who had made a study of the subject and has himself a big collection of flint points. He said the particular style of point I held in my hands was made by an Indian about seven or eight hundred years ago. For a while I sat on the bank under a cottonwood tree examining what some people would regard as just a curious piece of stone. But in my mind I imagined the maker chipping and shaping it and holding it up to study as it took his fancied shape until he tied it, with animal sinew, to a carefully chosen shaft. What exciting hunts was the spear taken on? Did it kill anything to supply food for the hunter’s family, or was it used to slay an enemy warrior or perhaps a Spanish Conquistador in a fierce fight to death? And how did it end up in the bottom of the river, to be found centuries later by a professional hunter from Africa? All these thoughts raced through my mind as I turned the ancient piece of history around in my fingers as though it were some sort of magic talisman that could transport me back in time.

We spent hours wandering along the river and I picked up a few more spear and arrow points as well as a hand axe and a few scrapers. Oh yes, and because Texas was under the sea a few million years ago, I also collected a number of interesting marine fossils that included fossilised shark teeth that my host said would have also probably been used as arrow points.

Later on we traveled to Colorado and while staying on a cattle ranch the owner kindly took me to a nearby place called Picture Canyon. The canyon was neither very deep nor very long but it was sheltered enough to provide a good place for wandering bands of Indians to camp. It was later also used by cowboys who drove herds of cattle up from Texas. The canyon got its name from the pictographs hewn into the walls by ancient indigenous people and also from the names of cowboys and the brands of the ranches they worked for inscribed deeply in the soft sandstone. This was truly a place that breathed history and in that quiet canyon I searched for traces of those who went before us and was rewarded by finding a few arrow heads that were, unfortunately, broken. It was interesting to note that there appeared to be two different styles of arrow heads made from two different types of flint. The larger points, made from a grey-coloured flintstone, had notches chipped out the rear section that would allow the point to be tied onto the shaft with sinew. The smaller and more delicate points were made from a glassy type of flint and were very sharp, but they were triangular in shape and had no notches at the rear. I was told that the grey flint was simply fossilised mud whereas the glassy type of flint was volcanic lava that had set hard once it cooled down. Unfortunately, although I searched until my eyes watered and scratched until my finger tips were raw, I was unable to find any of the smaller points that had not been broken. What a pity, because back at the ranch they had a display of all the arrow heads picked up on their property and I would have loved to own a collection like that. I did however dig up an old brass cartridge case of a calibre I had never heard of, and that alone was worth all my hard work.

I have an old book in my collection that was written by a chap called Armstrong who had lived with a tribe of northern woodland Indians. When he asked them where they got their flint from, the chief told him they had to go to Ohio to collect the valuable commodity. They would dig down to expose a bed of flintstone, then build a big fire on top of it. Once the flames were in their full fury the fire was brushed aside and cold water poured over the area. This of course would cause the flint bed to shatter and produce sharp shards of different sizes. The shards would then all be gathered up and taken back to the Indian village, where expert knappers would produce arrow heads, spear points, knives, axe heads, scrapers and other tools.

The artist George Catlin, who roamed around America in the early 1800s, also left a written record of what he saw while he painted Indian portraits and camp scenes. Catlin was also an avid hunter and took an interest in all the weapons the tribesmen used. He wrote: “The bow with which they are armed is small and apparently an insignificant weapon, though of great strength and almost incredible power. Their bows are often made of bone and sinews, and their arrows headed with flints or with bones of their own construction. An Indian, mounted on a fleet and well-trained horse, with his bow in his hand and on his back his quiver containing a hundred arrows, of which he can throw fifteen or twenty in a minute, is a formidable enemy”.

I read in another of my books, entitled Life in Custer’s Cavalry, that the soldiers lived in mortal fear of being struck by an arrow and all said they would much prefer being hit by a bullet. I can’t blame them, because the thought of a barbed arrow ripping into your body is rather unpleasant. Although most Indian bows were made of ashwood, George Catlin was intrigued by the ones made of bone because he could not think of an animal that could provide a bone long enough to make a three-foot-long bow. When he asked the Indians where they obtained the material they became very secretive and called them “medicine bows”. However, after further investigation Catlin discovered the bows were made from the jaw bones of whales. This meant the owners of these medicine bows must have made a long journey to trade with the coastal tribes and it’s no wonder that they would not part with their prized possession for anything Catlin offered.

Of this proud race of nomadic hunters Catlin sadly wrote that they were “…a numerous nation of human beings, whose origin is beyond the reach of human investigation, whose early history is lost and whose term of existence is nearly expired. People who have fallen victim to whisky, smallpox, sword and bayonet, leaving at this time but a meager proportion to live a short time longer, in the certain apprehension of soon all sharing a similar fate”. Those words were written way back in 1833. Sixty years later all American Indians were confined to reservations and twelve thousand years of free roaming came to an end.

Updated: Thursday, December 10, 2009 11:32 AM