Archaic Stems

This is a review by Ray Strischek of the book Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points, by Noel D. Justice, and the differences between Paleo, Archaic, and Woodland spear and arrow point styles.

Conventional intellectual shorthand reduces the differences between Paleo, Archaic, and Woodland eras as follows:

  • Paleo: 18,000 BC to 7,000 BC, HUNTING!!! and gathering.
  • Archaic: 7,000 BC to 1,000 BC, HUNTING and Gathering.
  • Woodland: 1,000 BC to 1,250 AD, Hunting and GATHERING!!!

Researchers believe that, in Paleo times, hunting was the all-consuming activity.  People gathered to add spice to the meal or to ward off starvation when hunting was poor.

In Archaic times, hunting anything that walked, crawled, swam, or flew was still a priority, but gathering became a close second with an increase in labor away from hunting and directed towards teasing or encouraging  more productivity from existing forage resources. People intentionally eliminated competitor plants wherever desired food stuffs grew — tree nuts, berries, edible green leafy things, seeds, or root plants. Some called this “horticulture.”

The Woodlands era (except in Buffalo country) saw hunting reduced to a level more or less subservient to gathering, which becomes actual “agriculture,” notably an increase of time spent away from hunting and instead directed towards the planting of corn, squash, and beans in North America.  People continued to gather tree nuts, berries, seeds, green leafy things, and root plants.

Some writers like to point out that the difference between Paleo and Archaic is the introduction in Archaic times of the celt and ground stone axe. They claim that pottery in the Woodland era separated it from its prior.

Other milestones include:

  1. Paleo:  All the mega fauna go extinct and people exploit quality flint.
  2. Archaic: Population increases cause restriction of movement, birth territorialism, and  increase dependency on local flint sources.
  3. Woodlands: Religious or spiritual groups (mound builders), regional centers of influence and trade networks, specialization of tasks (flint point-making and pottery) with outlying areas somewhat to completely isolated from the trade networks and completely dependent upon local flint sources. (Have and have nots.)

Stoneage Spear and Arrow Points by Noel D Justice is one of the better Bibles for the collector out there. It is meticulously and chronologically detailed and wonderfully illustrated.  Through those details and illustrations, the author makes the differences between Paleo, Archaic, and Woodland era points immediately and visually perceptible.

  1. Paleo:  Absolutely exquisite overall craftsmanship, addiction to high-quality flint from far afield and hardly a stem to be found. OK, Scottsbluff has a stem, but that’s about all and it is considered late Paleo, even “Paleo Archaic.” In Paleo, the hafting section of the point is most often a continuation of the point form.  It’s slightly modified (thinned out at the base and dulled on the edges) with the use of flutes or heavy abrasion.  Apparently, hunting the big boys left plenty of time for Paleo Americans to sit around honing their craft, because exquisite examples far and away outnumber the crude.
  2. Archaic:  All that time redirected away from hunting and spent gathering,  the increase of population that led to restricted movement and increased dependency on local flint sources seems to have had an effect on the quality of craftsmanship overall.  In no way can the overall level of craftsmanship in the Archaic hold a candle to the Paleo.  In the Archaic, stems on points becomes the norm:  square stems, rounded stems, ovate stems, diamond shaped stems, dove tail, turkey tail, beaver tail, side notched, corner notched and that bifurcate thing that looks all the world like a pair of balls dangling from the bottom of the blade.  In the Archaic, the hafting element of the point becomes a distinctly separate design entity from the blade.  This does not mean that there are no flashy, well executed points. There are, but they are the exception to the rule.
  3. Woodlands:  Craftsmanship gets even worse except in those regional centers (like Cahokia or Hopewell) where stability through agriculture creates specialization.  However, it appears that quality flint sources fall under the distribution and control of these regional centers and leave the outlying and smaller communities stuck with crappy chert. If you are not part of the trade network, if you have nothing to trade, you get nothing. You certainly do not have access to quality flint.  And apparently, the necessity to spend much more time away from hunting and directed to gathering just to hustle up the day’s meal leaves little time to master the art of flint knapping. Simply paging through Justice’s book, you can see the de-evolution of Woodland Era — a time of crude, lumpy, shapeless, and stylistically impoverished examples of workmanship. There were apparently no truly innovative adaptations of design.  Points appear as poor distant cousin of previous eras, something flint knapping expert Charles Spear of Peru, Indiana, would call “survival points, better than nothing.”