Archaeologists uncover oldest known projectile points in the Americas

Oregon State archaeologists uncover oldest known projectile points in America

Stone projectile points discovered buried in and outside pit features at the Cooper’s Ferry site, Area B. Credit: Loren Davis

Oregon State University archaeologists have uncovered projectile points in Idaho that are thousands of years older than any previously found in the Americas, helping to fill in the story of how early humans made and used stone weapons.

The 13 whole and fragmentary projectile points, razor-sharp and ranging from about half an inch to 2 inches long, date to about 15,700 years ago, according to carbon-14 dating. It is about 3,000 years older than the Clovis groove points found throughout North America, and 2,300 years older than the points previously found at the same Cooper’s Ferry site along the Salmon River in present-day Idaho.

The findings were published today in the journal The progress of science.

“From a scientific point of view, these findings add very important details about what the archaeological record of the earliest peoples in the Americas looks like,” said Loren Davis, professor of anthropology at OSU and leader of the group that found the points. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We think people were here in America 16,000 years ago’; it’s another thing to measure that by finding well-made artifacts they left behind.”

Previously, Davis and other researchers working at the Cooper’s Ferry site had found simple flakes and pieces of bone that indicated human presence around 16,000 years ago. But the discovery of projectile points reveals new insights into the way early Americans expressed complex thoughts through technology at the time, Davis said.






Credit: Oregon State University

The Salmon River area where the points were found is on traditional Nez Perce lands, known to the tribe as the ancient village of Nipéhe. The land is currently held in public ownership by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

The points are revelatory not only in their age, but in their similarity to projectile points found in Hokkaido, Japan, which date to 16,000-20,000 years ago, Davis said. Their presence in Idaho adds more detail to the hypothesis that there are early genetic and cultural connections between the Ice Age peoples of Northeast Asia and North America.

“The earliest peoples in North America had cultural knowledge that they used to survive and thrive over time. Some of this knowledge can be seen in the way people made stone tools, such as the projectile points found at the Cooper’s Ferry site,” Davis said. “By comparing these points to other sites of the same age and older, we can infer the spatial extent of social networks where this technological knowledge was shared between people.”

  • Oregon State archaeologists uncover oldest known projectile points in America

    Overview of the Area B excavations at the Cooper’s Ferry site in 2017. Credit: Loren Davis

  • Oregon State archaeologists uncover oldest known projectile points in America

    Excavator at work recording artifacts excavated from a pit at the Cooper’s Ferry site. Credit: Loren Davis

These slender projectile points are characterized by two distinct ends, one sharpened and one stubbed, as well as a symmetrical beveled shape if viewed from the front. They were probably attached to arrows, rather than arrows or spears, and despite their small size, they were deadly weapons, Davis said.

“There is an assumption that early projectile points had to be large to kill large game, but smaller projectile points mounted on arrows would penetrate deeply and cause enormous internal damage,” he said. “You can hunt every animal we know of with weapons like these.”

These findings add to the new picture of early human life in the Pacific Northwest, Davis said. “Finding a site where people made pits and stored complete and broken projectile points almost 16,000 years ago gives us valuable details about the lives of the region’s earliest inhabitants.”

  • Oregon State archaeologists uncover oldest known projectile points in America

    Overview of the Cooper’s Ferry site in the lower Salmon River canyon in western Idaho, USA. Credit: Loren Davis

  • Oregon State archaeologists uncover oldest known projectile points in America

    Overview of pit features 78 during the digging process. Credit: Loren Davis

  • Oregon State archaeologists uncover oldest known projectile points in America

    (A) map showing the location of the Cooper’s Ferry site in the context of Pacific Northwest environments 16,000 years ago; (B) aerial view (from Google Earth) showing the excavations from Cooper’s Ferry; (C) site map showing location of Excavation Area A and Area B. Credit: Loren Davis

The newly discovered pits are part of the larger Cooper’s Ferry record, where Davis and colleagues previously reported a 14,200-year-old fire pit and a food processing area containing the remains of an extinct horse. In all, they found and mapped more than 65,000 objects, recording their locations to the millimeter for accurate documentation.

The projectile points were uncovered over several summers between 2012 and 2017, with work supported by a partnership between OSU and the BLM. All excavation work has been completed and the site is now covered. The BLM installed interpretive panels and a kiosk at the site to describe the work.

Oregon State archaeologists uncover oldest known projectile points in America

Stratigraphic model of the Cooper’s Ferry site, showing the distribution of cultural features (e.g., hearths, pits), radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence ages, sediment layers, and buried soil as exposed by excavations in Area A and Area B. Credit: Loren Davis

Davis has studied Cooper’s Ferry since the 1990s when he was an archaeologist with the BLM. Now he is working with the BLM to bring undergraduates and graduate students from OSU to work on the site in the summer. The team also works closely with the Nez Perce tribe to provide field opportunities for tribal youth and to communicate any findings.

More information:
Loren Davis, Dating a large tool assemblage at the Cooper’s Ferry Site (Idaho, USA) Dated ~15,785 cal yr BP extends age for stem points in the Americas, The progress of science (2022). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.ade1248. www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.ade1248

Provided by Oregon State University

Citation: Archaeologists Uncover Oldest Known Projectile Points in Americas (2022, December 23) Retrieved December 25, 2022, from https://phys.org/news/2022-12-archaeologists-uncover-oldest-projectile-americas.html

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