Archive for June, 2010

Atlatl Petroglyph, Atlatl Rock, Valley of Fire State Park

Jim Weller, who has extensive experience with atlatl construction and use, e-mails with some very interesting thoughts.  About the atlatl petroglyph on Atlatl Rock at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, which I have used to illustrate some earlier posts, he says:

What I find very interesting . . . is that the atlatl in that petroglyph doesn’t have a hook.  It’s forked at the end, which I assume means it had a string across the fork and the darts had nocks like an arrow.

. . .

This page here is what made me think the atlatl in the petroglyph was fork-and-string.  The business end of the 2nd atlatl shown looks just like the petroglyph, although it lacks finger loops on the other end. http://www.primitiveways.com/loop_cord_atlatl.html
Also, on finger loops:
As to finger loops, in my own tinkering with atlatls, I’ve developed a preference for them.  This is because the human wrist moves a lot more up-and-down than it does left-to-right, and the more wrist movement you can put into the throw, the faster the dart goes.  Without finger loops, throwing is like chopping with a hatchet (or throwing a javelin without an atlatl), limiting you to the left-right wrist motion. With finger loops OTOH, throwing is much like with a baseball, allowing the full up-down wrist snap towards the end of the throwing motion.

I think there’s enough difference in power (and accuracy) with finger loops for them to have been pretty much standard equipment.  Sure, you don’t absolutely need them, and there are many folks today who don’t use them and still achieve excellent results.  However, if my life depended on an atlatl, I’d definitely use them.  They have physics on their side.  And there seem to be more examples of atlatls from all over the world with some sort of finger loop than there are without.  Leather straps, shell crescents, and holes drilled through wide handles.  Thus, I’m not surprised that the loops are emphasized in art.  I prefer the leather straps because they don’t chafe and pinch my fingers as much as the hard types of loop.

. . .

Note in the petroglyph that the atlatl handle is much narrower at the loops than elsewhere.  This is a pretty necessary design feature for using loops on an atlatl that’s more than about 1/2″ in diameter.  So, if you find just the stick and wonder if it ever had loops, look for this narrow place if the rest of the handle is wider than 1/2″.  If there’s no narrow place, then it almost certainly never had loops.  OTOH, if the whole thing is only 1/2″ wide, then there’s no good way to tell.

The reason you need the narrow place on wide handles is because when using loops, the atlatl goes between the index and middle fingers, which still have to wrap back around on top to hold the dart.  The narrow gap between these fingers and their lack of opposability puts a limit on how big an object will fit between them comfortably.  If the atlatl is more than about 1/2″ wide there, you CAN use it, but each throw hurts the inside of your index finger just below the 1st knuckle, and you have to tense up the whole hand and wrist to get a good grip on the dart, which decreases power and accuracy.  Not fun.  But OTOH, if the whole handle is that narrow, you have to tense up your hand anyway to hold it with your thumb and other fingers below the loops.  So the best design is wide enough at the butt for a relaxed grip for the thumb, pinky, and ring fingers, and narrow above for a relaxed grip with the index and middle fingers.

To see how this works, make a peace sign keeping the thumb, pinky, and ring fingers in a comfortable circle so none of them touch the palm.  That’s a good diameter for the lower part of the handle (or the whole handle if you’re not using loops).  Now, keeping your middle and index fingers as far apart as possible at their 1st knuckles, bend them down and in until their tips touch each other and the tip of the middle finger is touching the end of the ring finger.  Look how much smaller the gap between the index and middle finger knuckles is compared to the gap between the other fingers and the palm.
Also, via the interesting Blackwater Draw blog, I see that John Whittaker of Grinnell College has an extensive annotated bibliography on atlatls available on his website.  From it I see that he disagrees with both Calvin Howard and Bob Perkins about the physics of the atlatl.  I don’t know enough about the thing to judge who’s right.  Gaining that kind of knowledge really requires substantial personal experimentation, and while I could do that, I’m mostly interested in the cultural and historical implications of these technologies rather than the details of their operation.  Still, there’s a ton of literature out there for anyone who is interested, and Whittaker’s bibliography would be a great place to start.


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Richard Wetherill's Grave

One hundred years ago today, Richard Wetherill was shot and killed by Chischilly Begay near the western end of Chaco Canyon.  That much is clear, but the circumstances surrounding Wetherill’s death are otherwise murky.  The same could be said for his life and legacy.

Wetherill was an enormously important figure to the history of archaeological research in the Southwest in general and at Chaco in particular, but also a controversial one, both in his own time and since then.  He was the eldest son of a Quaker family that gradually made its way west during the mid-nineteenth century, ending up in Mancos, Colorado.  There they had a ranch, and would sometimes run their cattle on the nearby Ute reservation.  Most of the Anglos in Mancos were on poor terms with the Utes, and occasional raids in both directions well into the late nineteenth century kept relations tense in the area.  The Wetherills were Quakers, however, and as such were pacifists who posed little threat to the Utes, with whom they were on generally good terms.  The Utes even allowed them to occasionally run their cattle on the reservation, and it was on one such drive in 1888 that Richard discovered the ruins of Cliff Palace on Mesa Verde.  He wasn’t the first Anglo to see the sites on Mesa Verde; various expeditions had documented them earlier, but he was the first to popularize them by excavating for artifacts and running tours.  He developed an interest in archaeology, and began to travel around the Southwest looking for ruins to excavate, in the company of his younger brothers.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

In those days archaeology was not yet very professionalized, and the big eastern museums that were beginning to amass large collections of artifacts still acquired them largely by purchase from local diggers.  The sort of thing the Wetherills were doing was not that uncommon in the area, but they operated somewhat differently from most local pothunters, inviting academic archaeologists to assist in their excavations.  They still sold artifacts to museums, but as museums began to become more interested in pursuing their own more carefully controlled excavations Richard Wetherill was eager to assist.  After supplying much of the material used in the “Cliff Dweller” exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, he met a rich young man from New York named Talbot Hyde who was interested in funding some excavations under what came to be known as the Hyde Exploring Expedition (HEE).  The first work done by the HEE was in the Grand Gulch area of Utah, where it first identified and named the “Basketmaker” cultural stratum underlying the later “cliff-dweller” occupation.

Pueblo Bonito from Above

By the mid-1890s, Wetherill and Hyde had begun to make arrangements to collaborate with Frederick Ward Putnam of the American Museum of Natural History, which was looking to strengthen its archaeological collections.  The three men settled on Chaco Canyon as a good place to work, and excavations at Pueblo Bonito began in the summer of 1896.  Wetherill had assumed that he would be in charge of the excavations, but Hyde and Putnam wanted a professional, scholarly archaeologist affiliated with the museum to oversee the work.  Putnam was too busy to go himself, so he sent his 23-year-old protege George Pepper instead.  This caused some tension with Wetherill when he found out, but the excavations went well, and the quantity and quality of artifacts found at Pueblo Bonito were astonishing.  Work went on for five more seasons, during which time Wetherill moved to Chaco permanently and set up a trading post at Pueblo Bonito.  The one store soon led to a whole network of trading posts in the area under the auspices of the HEE and run by various Wetherill brothers, along with a retail location in New York to sell the Navajo rugs and other handicrafts acquired from the local Navajos in exchange for the wide variety of goods sold in the stores.

Archaeology was still in its infancy then, and the techniques were crude by modern standards, but the Hyde Expedition actually did a pretty good job of recording and documenting the work by the standards of the day.  Important to this was the extensive use of photography.  Wetherill was a very skilled amateur photographer at a time when photography was still mainly the province of professionals, and he put his skills to work at documenting much of the digging, including photographing many artifacts in situ.  Pepper also kept careful notes.  As a result, this work is much better documented than even much professional archaeology at the same time, let alone the crude and destructive pothunting that was still more common.

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Other professional archaeologists at the time didn’t see it that way, however, and there was a lot of opposition to the HEE’s work at Chaco.  Some came from archaeologists associated with other eastern museums, who were engaged in pretty much the same thing at other sites and didn’t care for competition, but what turned out to be the more important opposition came from local archaeologists in New Mexico who disliked the prospect of the artifacts being taken off to New York.  This group was located mainly in Santa Fe and led by Edgar Lee Hewett, president of the New Mexico Normal School (now New Mexico Highlands University) in Las Vegas.  The accusations they hurled at the HEE, both through articles in the Santa Fe New Mexican and in complaints made to federal authorities, eventually resulted in federal investigations that shut down the excavations in 1901.  Wetherill and Hyde made some unsuccessful attempts to homestead the land at that point, but by then various problems internal to the HEE had basically drained all enthusiasm for continued excavation, and the New Mexico presence of the Expedition was effectively over.  It continued to exist in the east, as Hyde spent many more years wrangling with various museums over the artifacts collected at Chaco, but Wetherill no longer had anything to do with it.

He remained at Chaco, however, trading at his store next to Pueblo Bonito and running cattle.  His relationship with the local Navajos was not always good, however, and it apparently ultimately led to his death.

The immediate cause of the dispute that led to the shooting appears to have been a horse that Wetherill bought from a relative of Chischilly Begay for his daughter.  Shortly after the purchase, however, the horse somehow ended up back at the camp of the Navajo family that had sold it.  They claimed that it had come there on its own, but Wetherill suspected that they had stolen it back and mistreated it.  On June 22, 1910 he sent his right-hand-man, a rather rough cowboy type named Bill Finn, to the family’s camp near the western end of the canyon to get it back.  Finn’s confrontation with the man who had sold the horse quickly turned violent, and Finn ended up pistol-whipping him so severely that the family thought he was either dead already or in the process of dying.  (He did actually end up surviving.)  Finn then left with the disputed horse, which he brought back to Wetherill at the store.  When Wetherill heard what had happened he was not pleased, but he decided not to do anything more about it and that afternoon he, Finn, and other ranch hands set off to drive their cattle down the canyon.

Tsaya Trading Post

While Finn was heading back up the canyon with the repossessed horse, Chischilly Begay, a relative of the beaten man who had witnessed Finn’s actions, was heading the other way, down the Chaco Wash past the end of the canyon to Tsaya Trading Post, run by George and Albert Blake.  George Blake was running the store that day when Chischilly Begay came in and bought a gun and some ammunition.  He then left the store and headed back up the wash toward Pueblo Bonito, Finn, and Wetherill.

Meanwhile, the cattle drive down the canyon continued, and Wetherill and Finn were, unbeknownst to them, heading steadily toward Chischilly Begay at the same time that he was heading steadily toward them.  Eventually, near the western end of the canyon, they met.

Shots rang out on both sides, and the exact details are hard to discern at this remove.  The result, however, was that Wetherill was killed, Finn and the other ranch hands quickly turned around and headed back to Bonito to tell Wetherill’s family what had happened, and Chischilly Begay also turned around and went back to Tsaya Trading Post, where he told George Blake what he had done and asked for advice on what to do next.  Blake was understandably upset at what had happened, and he convinced Chischilly Begay to keep going northwest to Shiprock and to surrender himself to the Indian Agent there, which he did.

Nat'aani Nez Complex, Northern Navajo Agency, Shiprock, New Mexico

Chischilly Begay ended up standing trial for the murder.  He was convicted and sentenced to a remarkably short prison term of only a few years in the Territorial Penitentiary in Santa Fe.  This was not typical for cases in which an Indian killed a white man, and it speaks to Wetherill’s controversial status among even his fellow Anglos.  The Indian Service officials, in particular, detested him, and they organized a strong defense at the trial.  Chischilly Begay actually ended up serving only part of his short sentence, and he was released in 1914 as a result of illness.  He apparently recovered, however, and went on to live until 1950.

The circumstances of Wetherill’s death remain somewhat mysterious.  There are rumors that the whole thing was arranged by Finn, who was allegedly carrying on an affair with Wetherill’s wife Marietta.  I find that rather implausible, but you never know.  In any case, I think the main thing that comes through about Wetherill is that although he was a smart guy and talented in many ways, he was also just kind of jerk.  Indeed, some accounts of his behavior toward his Navajo customers seems rather thuggish for a Quaker.  He sounds like a difficult man to deal with, and I think it’s likely that his death was the end result of a long series of grievances against him by the local Navajos, and that Finn’s behavior while repossessing the horse was just the last straw.  One thing Wetherill never seems to have realized is that a trader depended considerably on his good reputation with his local customers.  Stores were spread rather widely, but there were quite a few of them by 1910, and the Navajos were quite willing to trade at a more distant store if they didn’t like the trader at their local one.  The risk of a bad reputation was usually loss of business rather than loss of life, but Wetherill’s is not the only instance of a trader being murdered by irate customers in those days.  It didn’t happen often, but it did happen, and most traders were careful to be nice and to deal honestly with their customers.

Closeup of Richard Wetherill's Grave

Wetherill wasn’t much of a trader, though.  He has something of a reputation these days in a lot of circles as not having been much of an archaeologist either, but I think that’s a bit overblown and over-reliant on Hewett’s exaggerated complaints.  Wetherill’s techniques were crude by the standards of today, but they were comparable to the standards of the best professional archaeologists at the time, and considerably better than many others.  These days there’s a strong divide between archaeologists and pothunters, but in those days it was really more of a continuum, and Wetherill fell somewhere in the middle.  He certainly wasn’t digging haphazardly into sites looking only for valuable artifacts the way typical pothunters did.  His motivations are hard to discern, but they don’t seem to have been primarily financial.  They may or may not have been “scholarly” in a narrow sense, but he certainly saw “professional” archaeologists more as potential collaborators than as potential competition.

It’s hard to defend him too much, though, because he really doesn’t seem to have been a very nice guy.  In general I think he deserves a lot of criticism and he gets a lot of criticism, but most of the criticism he gets isn’t actually deserved.  In any case, he’s an enigmatic figure, as mysterious and controversial today, a hundred years after his death, as he was in life.
Snead, J. (1999). Science, Commerce, and Control: Patronage and the Development of Anthropological Archaeology in the Americas American Anthropologist, 101 (2), 256-271 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1999.101.2.256

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Window at Casa Rinconada That Channels Sunbeam at Sunrise on Summer Solstice

Today is the summer solstice, which is a pretty important time at Chaco.  It’s also a good time for me to announce that I’m going to be coming back to Chaco this summer to work for a few weeks.  When I left last year I had no intention of ever working there again, but I’ve come to realize that for a variety of reasons this is a good thing for me to be doing this summer.  So if you’ve ever wanted to see one of my tours, now’s your chance.  I’ll be there from roughly the beginning of July to the middle of August.

Niche at Casa Rinconada That Gets Hit by Summer Solstice Sunrise Beam

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Very Large Array, Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico

Like atlatls, but to an even greater degree, bows are rare in the archaeological record because they were made of perishable materials.  While some types of atlatls had more durable attachments such as hooks and weights, bows were almost always made of wood and various fibrous materials, except in some areas where they were made of horn or antler.  Bows are thus exceedingly rare in the archaeological record, and when they do appear it is usually just as fragments.  Many museums have large collections of complete bows, but these come almost entirely from modern ethnographic collections and are not necessarily the same types that were used in antiquity.  Indeed, there seems to have been a major change in bow technology in the late prehistoric period throughout North America, in which the simple self bow was replaced by a more elaborate sinew-backed recurved type which was both smaller and more powerful.  Ethnographic examples are almost always recurved, so understanding the older self bows requires study of the few archaeological examples available.  These survive only under conditions of exceptional preservation, such as in caves and rockshelters.

One important discovery came about rather accidentally.  In the 1930s, the University of New Mexico did some archaeological surveys in the southwestern part of the state, particularly in the relatively unexplored area in and around the Gila Mountains, between the Plains of San Agustin to the north and the well-known Mimbres Valley, famous for its black-on-white pottery, to the south.  During one of these surveys, near Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, Frank Hibben, a graduate student at UNM who would go on to have a long career there as a professor of anthropology and director of the Maxwell Museum, decided to take a break to hunt mountain lions.  (Hibben was an odd guy.)  He chased one particular lion for many miles along the canyons and cliffs, and eventually followed its tracks into a small cliff dwelling high up on a canyon wall.

Looking South from Very Large Array, Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico

When he entered the site, Hibben found to his surprise a pile of bows, which had apparently originally been stacked in a corner but had been largely scattered and broken throughout the room.  Furthermore, there were arrows strewn all across the floor of the site and the cave in which is was situated, also broken.  There were about 94 bows and 4,000 arrows, an astonishingly high number.  While they all appeared to be broken, probably by bears who had used the cave as a lair in the time since its abandonment, the sheer number of specimens made this cache an unparalleled resource for understanding early Southwestern weaponry.  Realizing the importance of his discovery, Hibben collected the bows and brought them back for further study, after which he wrote a short article describing them which was published in American Antiquity in 1938.

The article is short and doesn’t give nearly as much information about the bows and arrows as would be ideal, but it does mention certain characteristics which are important in comparing these bows to other prehistoric and ethnographic examples.  These all appear to have been self bows; Hibben made no mention of any sinew backing or recurving.  They were also large.  The average length of the restorable ones was about four and a half feet, and the longest was almost five feet long.  The shortest was about three feet long, which Hibben described as “too small for any serious use,” although this is a typical length for recurved bows.  Only one bow retained any fragment of bowstring, and it was made of yucca fiber.  Sixteen bows were decorated with red or black stripes.

Railroad Crossing, Very Large Array, Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico

Hibben was unable to determine the type of wood for all of the bows, but from the ones that could be determined it was clear that oak was the preferred material.  Other identified woods were piñon, (ponderosa?) pine, willow, mountain mahogany, and sycamore.  (Note the absence of juniper, which will be important later.)  Interestingly, the bowyers don’t seem to have selected particularly fine staves from which to make the bows, and knots are frequent.  The surfaces,  however, were finely finished and probably polished, suggesting that a considerable amount of effort did go into making these bows.

The most interesting thing about the arrows is that out of the thousands in the cave, only eleven had notches for stone heads to be attached.  The rest were merely sharpened to create wooden points.  This is important to keep in mind, given the large role arrowheads tend to play in theories about prehistoric weaponry.  It’s understandable, since stone projectile points are the most durable parts of any weapon system, but if this ratio of stone to wooden points is typical (and there is of course no way to tell if it is) it suggests that stone points may not actually have been nearly as central as archaeologists often assume.  The arrows were also elaborately decorated in a variety of designs and colors which Hibben interpreted as property marks.

Historic Marker, Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico

There were some sherds of Mimbres Black-on-white pottery associated with the cache, suggesting that it dates to the Classic Mimbres period, ca. AD 1000 to 1150, which would make it contemporaneous with Chaco.  This temporal placement makes sense, since the self bow is known to have been the main weapon used in the Southwest in this period.  The recurved bow was introduced later, perhaps during the period of change and instability in the region around AD 1300, and persisted into historic times.  The persistence of the recurved bow was presumably due to its considerable advantages over the self bow, which faded into the distant past as most examples deteriorated.  One cache, however, survived thanks to its location in a sheltered cave, and was rediscovered due to the efforts of a crafty mountain lion and the archaeologist who pursued it.  Knowledge comes about in odd ways sometimes.
Hibben, F. (1938). A Cache of Wooden Bows from the Mogollon Mountains American Antiquity, 4 (1) DOI: 10.2307/275360

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Arrowheads at Chaco Visitor Center Museum

I’ve said quite a lot about atlatls, so perhaps it’s time to move on to the second part of this series.  The bow and arrow is a sufficiently popular weapon system even today that it doesn’t need much introduction.  It’s important to note, however, that most archaeologists have concluded that the bow and arrow is quite a complicated system and not at all an obvious idea.  This has led to a general consensus that the bow and arrow was probably invented only once somewhere in the Old World and subsequently diffused gradually across the Bering Strait and southward through the Americas.  This process can be seen pretty clearly in the Southwest, one of the few places where actual examples of both atlatls and bows have been found in well-dated contexts.  Those contexts show that the bow definitely did completely replace the atlatl sometime in the late centuries BC or early centuries AD.  Evidence from Mesoamerica shows that the bow and arrow didn’t arrive there until somewhat later, during the Late Postclassic period, and never really caught on, possibly because of the cultural importance of the atlatl.

Beyond those two well-documented areas, however, we have few datapoints with which to directly track the spread of the bow and arrow and the replacement of the atlatl.  In most (but not all) parts of North America the atlatl was no longer in use at the time of European contact, so complete replacement does seem to have taken place in most areas, but there is little direct evidence for when this happened where.  The use of the atlatl can be seen in some areas through durable artifacts associated with the atlatl-dart complex such as weights, hooks, and finger-loops, but these were not used with atlatls in all areas, and the bow-and-arrow complex has no such associated durable artifacts beyond projectile points.  So while in some, but not all, places we can see roughly when the atlatl stopped being used by noticing the latest occurrences of durable artifacts associated with it, and we can be reasonably sure from ethnohistoric and ethnographic documentation that it was replaced by the bow, we can’t tell if the replacement was sudden or gradual or what mechanism accounted for it.

In some places the atlatl did survive into historic times.  In addition to Mesoamerica and the Andes, where it may have had special cultural status, it was widely used in the Arctic (along with the bow) at the time of the early European expeditions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  This is interesting because if the bow did indeed diffuse into the Americas from Asia it would have to have come through the Arctic.  This implies that the bow must have been known in that area quite early, and yet it never totally displaced the atlatl.  There is some evidence that the atlatl may have been more useful for fishing and hunting of marine mammals than the bow, which would account for its continued use among the coastal Arctic groups who depended very heavily on those food sources.  I’ll discuss that more in a future post.

Potsherds and a Chipped-Stone Tool, Homol'ovi Ruins

So where did the bow come from, and when was it invented?  Most archaeologists have concluded that the bow and arrow system is sufficiently complex that it is unlikely to have been invented more than once, and thus the idea that it originated quite early somewhere in the Old World and gradually spread is widely accepted.  Not everyone agrees; Oren Evans of the University of Oklahoma published an article in 1957 reporting on some experiments and arguing that, contrary to this general consensus, the basic principle of the bow would have been easy to discover and that it was likely invented multiple times in different places.  He even mentioned having seen a young boy playing around with sticks coming up with the general idea apparently on his own, although he acknowledges that the boy could well have seen bows before, a possibility that rather severely undermines the value of this piece of anecdotal evidence.  The hard part, according to Evans, would have been refining the bow and arrow into an efficient weapon system that would be superior to the atlatl.  This theory has not been widely accepted.

More recently, Malcolm Farmer published an article on the physics of both the atlatl and the bow, arguing on the basis of research by Bob Perkins that the altatl-dart system is actually very similar to the bow and arrow in the physical principles of its operation.  He goes on to argue that they likely originated in the same area, most likely northwestern Africa.  The earliest evidence for atlatl use comes from the distinctive projectile points of the Aterian tradition, dating to around 40,000 years ago (although there is recent evidence that the Aterian may have begun much earlier than previous thought).  Smaller points thought to be arrowheads appear with the later Oranian and Capsian traditions starting around 15,000 years ago.  “Oranian” and “Capsian” are clearly different entities, but it’s not totally clear to me if they are distinct primarily geographically or chronologically.  Also, after seeing the extensive debate over the relationship between point size and weapon type in North American archaeology, some of the pronouncements about these African points strike me as questionable.  This is very much not my area of expertise, though, so I can’t say much more.

I am skeptical about Farmer’s argument that the atlatl and the bow likely originated in the same area because they operate according to similar physical principles.  Even if the implication that the bow and arrow developed out of the atlatl and dart is correct, the atlatl seems to have originated so much earlier than the bow, and spread so far by the time the first evidence for the bow appears, that from a theoretical perspective there’s no reason the change had to occur in the atlatl’s initial home, although that is of course not evidence that it didn’t.  If it is in fact true that the earliest archaeological evidence for both technologies is in northwest Africa, however, and I have no reason to doubt it, then that is much more solid evidence and has interesting implications for cultural continuity and change in that area over a very long period of time (25,000 years or so if the above dates are accurate).  I don’t know of any other theories about the times and places of origin of these weapon systems, and Farmer seems to imply that the matter hasn’t gotten much attention.  I’m not really competent to evaluate Farmer’s theory, but as long as I’m discussing the transition from the atlatl to the bow I figure I should at least mention it as an attempt to understand the origin of both.  I’ll have more on the transition itself in future posts.
Evans, O. (1957). Probable Use of Stone Projectile Points American Antiquity, 23 (1) DOI: 10.2307/277288

Farmer, M. (1994). The Origins of Weapon Systems Current Anthropology, 35 (5) DOI: 10.1086/204331

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