New analysis of fragments of a weapon lost by an unsuccessful prehistoric hunter has confirmed that the object is probably the oldest bone point known in the Americas.
The bone fragments were embedded in a mastodon rib found during excavations at the Manis site in north-west Washington in 1977-1979. An earlier study, published in 2011 in Science (https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1207663), confirmed that the fragments were made of mastodon bone, and dated to c.13,900 years ago. This makes it the first bone tool and projectile point pre-dating the Clovis culture (c.13,000 years ago), as well as the first known example of a pre-Clovis point directly associated with megafauna hunting.
Due to its significance, however, the discovery met with some concerns about whether the object was definitely of human origin. In order to confirm this, the latest study, published in Science Advances (https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.ade9068), used high-resolution CT scans to create detailed 3D models of the fragments, which were then pieced back together, both manually and digitally. This process revealed that the shape of the reconstructed object – a thin, broad point, measuring 34.5mm long, 16.9mm wide, and 5.8mm thick – was consistent with it being the tip of a human-made projectile point. The reconstruction also showed that the object was similar in shape to lithic projectile points, and very unlike the cylindrical osseous points of Clovis and later cultures. The researchers were able to determine, too, that the object was made of dense cortical bone, probably from a long bone, and have confirmed that it definitely originates from an external source rather than being part of the skeleton of the deceased mastodon in which it was found.
It seems that the point, which would have been attached to a spear, was broken when it was thrown by a hunter attempting to pierce the mastodon between the ribs. Unluckily for the hunter – but very fortunately for us – the shot missed, and the point splintered and became lodged in the mastodon’s rib instead. The animal seems to have escaped, as it underwent at least a few weeks of healing before either dying of natural causes and being scavenged, or being hunted successfully a second time and butchered. The evidence of the initial failed hunt, which remained stuck in the mastodon’s rib bone, is now changing our understanding of technology and megafauna hunting in the Pacific North-West c.14,000 years ago.