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Bow and Arrow

When Did the Bow and Arrow Come To The Widwest?... Possibly Much Sooner Than You Thought.
Dr. E. J. Neiburger, Curator
Emeritus Lake County, Museum, Waukegan, Illinois

American Indians are often identified with the bow and arrow. Until the advent of accessible repeating rifles in the late 1800's, the bow and arrow was the chief weapon of choice. This was not always the case as the bow and arrow was a recently "invented " weapon, and was in all probability, inherited from the Old World.

Archaeological remains of bows and arrows (mostly small "arrowhead" points) indicate that the bow and arrow came from Siberian immigrants around 3000 BC. Artifacts found at a variety of sites in Alaska and northern Canada show dates around 1500 BC. This weapon moved south into the Mid-West (600-700AD), Southeast (700AD) and the Western United States by (500-200AD).Most archaeological texts have quoted these approximate dates consistently for the last 50 years.

While studying the Riverside Site collection, at the Milwaukee Public Museum, I noted what appears to be copper arrow points which were C 14 dated approximately 600-1000 years earlier than what was previously reported. If this interpretation is accurate, then the introduction and spread of the bow into North America was considerably more rapid than previously thought.


The Riverside Site was an Old Copper-Red Ocher Late Archaic site in southeastern Michigan located on Lake Michigan at the Wisconsin Michigan state line. It was a large cemetery which included numerous stone, bone, primitive pottery and copper artifacts. Most of the lithic (stone)materials were large blades and spear points. The numerous copper artifacts included: celts, knives, crescents, large "Ace of Spades" spears points, pikes, rings, awls, needles, fish hooks and about two dozen small conical points.


The site was periodically inhabited over a 1500 year period with most of the radiocarbon dates ranging between 1040-1 BC. This site was unique in that it demonstrated the beginnings of pottery manufacture and contained a lump of copper that demonstrated evidence of melting. The Riverside people were just moving out of the Archaic and into the Early Woodland period.



The 25 small conical copper points found were unusual. Some were unfinished but most were completed points made by rolling a pounded copper sheet in such a way as to form a point at one end and a open "skirt" at the other. The points ranged in length from 40mm to 15mm with most points being 35mm long. Their widths constantly ranged from 7mm to 10mm at the open skirt.


There was no shaft material present upon excavation, but most of the points shared the same size and shape. The size of these points lead me to the conclusion that they were arrow points for the following reasons: They were uniform, a requirement for consistently accurate shooting. They were small and were constructed to easily fit on an arrow sized shaft. They were to small for a typical spear shaft. In experiments, such a thin shaft (7-10mm width) could not be thrown very far because it was too light and would not have made an effective atlatl dart or spear. The points were thin at the tip and useless for heavy repetitive work such as with an awl, pike or scraper. There were other larger artifacts (both copper and stone) that were clearly used as spears heads, awls, needles and pikes. These points did not show much wear. If they were used, they were not reused very often. Most of the aerodynamically shaped and balanced.



The size of the open skirt is diagnostic for an arrow. Hamilton studied arrow shaft diameters from numerous cultures. He found arrow shafts to range from 7mm to 12mm. Corliss did an exhaustive study of hundreds of arrows from a wide range if native cultures. He found most arrows had a shaft diameter of 7 7mm (range 4- 8mm) as compared to spears which had an average shaft width of 12mm (range 9-13mm). Kehoe sized early American arrow points to fit the 7.5mm average shaft diameter range. My own study of 70 arrows from the collection of historic North and south American tribes (Milwaukee Public Museum) showed arrow shaft widths average 7-8mm as compared to spear shafts which were 12- 20mm.

These points appear to be an ideal shape and size for a well functioning arrow. If the arrow diameter is too small, it breaks and flies poorly. If it is too large, the arrow has a very short range and is useless. The Riverside conical points fit the profile of the ideal arrow point perfectly.


The Riverside Site copper points appear to have utilitarian use other than arrow points. It is possible that these, may have had other uses(e.g. decoration, as awls), but this is unlikely. These points generally look like modern field arrow points, fit modern arrow shafts and exhibit good aerodynamic shape and balance.

There is one question remaining Considering the increased efficiency of the bow and arrow as a weapon used by the Riverside people, why didn't it become more popular with the population? Such a scenario would encourage fabrication of considerable numbers of arrow points made from a variety of materials (stone and bone) which would be seen at numerous excavated sites.

Such a situation was noted around 600 AD in the Midwest but, with the exception of Riverside, not earlier. Once the bow and arrow was introduced spear points almost disappeared from period sites while arrow points multiplied. This did not happen in this case. No other sites of similar age show this type and quantity of points. Is it possible that the manufacture and use of arrows was somehow contained or limited for some reason? Perhaps it was limited to royalty or religious functions. We will probably never know. But looking at the Riverside Site, and the artifactual evidence, it is very probable that bows and thus arrows were used by the Riverside people. If indeed, the Riverside conical copper points were used as arrow points, as the above analysis implies, then the bow and arrow was in use sometime between 1000 BC and 1 BC in the Midwest, approximately 1000 years earlier than previously thought.





Blitz, J.

1988, North American Archaeology, "Adoption of the Bow in Prehistoric North America. 9, 2:123-145

Thomas, D.

1994, Exploring Ancient Native America, "When did the Bow and Arrow Arrive in North America." Mac-Milian & Co. NY. P.58-60.

Kehoe, T.

1966, American Antiquity, "The Small Side-Notched Point System of the Northern Plains" 31, 6:827-840.

Hruska, R.

1967, The WisconsinArchaeologist, `The Riverside Site:ALate Archaic Manifestation in Michigan." Vol. 48, #3: 145-260. Neiburger, E.J.

1986, North American Archaeology "Melted Copper from the Archaic Midwest." Vol.12, # 3, 35-360.

Hamilton, T.

1982, Missouri, Archaeological Society, Special Publication # 5. P. 16-24.

Corliss, D.

1972, Neck Width of Projectile Points: an Index to Culture,
Continuity and Change. Idaho State University Museum. #29.