Archaeologists identify oldest known projectile points in the Americas

Among the stone tools recovered from the site were 14 complete and fragmentary stemmed projectile points, dated to around 16,000 years ago.

Archaeologists from Oregon State University (OSU) have unearthed an assemblage of stemmed projectile points at the site of Cooper’s Ferry in western Idaho that are thousands of years older than any previously found in the Americas, offering new insights into early human life in the Pacific Northwest.

14 complete and fragmentary stemmed projectile points, dated to c.16,000 years ago, were found at the site in western Idaho. IMAGE: Courtesy of Loren Davis

The projectile points were uncovered between 2012 and 2018 over the course of multiple summers of excavation at Cooper’s Ferry, which is located along the lower Salmon River on traditional Nez Percé land.

The land is currently under public ownership by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

In total, 14 complete and fragmentary stemmed projectile points, ranging from around half an inch to two inches in length, yielded radiocarbon dates of c.16,000 years ago, making them 3,000 years older than the Clovis fluted points found throughout North America.

According to the study, the findings of which have been published in Science Advances, these slender projectile points were likely attached to darts, rather than spears or arrows.

View of the Cooper’s Ferry site, which sits on a terrace of the lower Salmon River in western Idaho. IMAGE: Courtesy of Loren Davis

‘There’s an assumption that early projectile points had to be big to kill large game; however, smaller projectile points mounted on darts will penetrate deeply and cause tremendous internal damage,’ said Professor Loren Davis from OSU. ‘You can hunt any animal we know about with weapons like these.’

The analysis also involved comparing the points with those found at other sites of the same age and older, in order to infer any social networks through which this technological knowledge may have been shared.

The researchers identified strong similarities between these points and bifacial points found in northern Japan, which date to the Late Upper Palaeolithic period (c.16,000-20,000 years ago), in their form and how they had been produced.

These observations have led the team to suggest that some of the first technological traditions in the Americas may have originated in this region.

Excavating Cooper’s Ferry in 2017. IMAGE: Courtesy of Loren Davis

The points may therefore be evidence of cultural and genetic connections between the Ice Age populations of northeast Asia and North America.

More than 65,000 artefacts have been unearthed at Cooper’s Ferry, including animal bones, a 14,200-year-old fire pit, and other types of stone tools.

‘Finding a site where people made pits and stored complete and broken projectile points nearly 16,000 years ago gives us valuable details about the lives of our region’s earliest inhabitants,’ said Davis.

Now that all excavation work is complete, the site has been covered over and interpretive panels have been installed.

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