Since the time of early European exploration of the Americas, there have been plenty of speculative hypothesizing on the origin of the indigenous inhabitants. The peopling of the New World continents have been attributed to the Lost Tribes of Israel and other religious wanderers to migrations of various early European or African based culture groups in some time in the remote past. Apart from the cosmological explanations, the indigenous people themselves usually believe they have always been in Americas, that they originated here.
The more colourful explanations of the origin of the indigenous people arise from a non-professional perspective used to advance sort of sensational political, cultural or social goal that embellishes the evidence to draw specific conclusions. Especially in earlier times, these hypotheses were drawn to support some ‘centric’ viewpoint may it be social, religious or racial. In the early days of anthropology we can observe the same speculation as the profession grew up, so to speak.
The modern theory of the origin of the indigenous people in the Americas, widely accepted in current anthropological thought, is that the continents were populated by successive waves of migrating groups of people from east Asia through the northwest of North America and eventually moving south to populate all regions of the two continents. This theory is based on a growing body of evidence subject to scientific scrutiny in diverse fields such as archaeology, genetic sequencing, biology and botany, linguistics, geology and so on. Since the accepted theory is under such scrutiny, the requirements to meet the test of evidence are stringent and out of this there have arisen a few controversies, especially around the timing of the first wave of migrant hunters and how they arrived here.
The current accepted evidence of the human occupation of North America dates from around 15,000 years ago when thought that bands of big game hunters followed their prey into the New World via the Beringia land-bridge that had appeared because of lower of the sea levels during the last great ice age. This timing is supported by the dating of similar stone tools and spear points found dispersed across the central portion of North America, often in the remains of big game such as mammoth or mastodon, giant elk or bison, which were also known to exist in east Asia during the same period. There are tantalizing hints that people entered North America at a much earlier date, upwards to 40,000 years ago but these conclusions are tentative and not widely accepted.
How these people arrived appears to comprise two theories: by land, through an ice free corridor between the Cordilleran ice sheet, that covered most of the northwest coast and Rocky Mountains, and the Laurentian ice sheet that covered the northern half of the continent; by sea, around the coast line of Beringia and down the west coast which would have extended further out than it does in modern times, due to the lower sea levels. The former appears more likely mainly because of the paucity of evidence of the latter. However as marine archaeology matures, we might eventually see more evidence of a coastal migration of the people. Maybe each wave of migration used a combination of methods to achieve entry into continent.
Determining the progress of the peopling of the Americas is achieved primarily through the field of archaeology and related disciplines. Archaeologists have tracked the movement of the indigenous people in time through various material dating techniques such as dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating. The rapid peopling of the Americas has been called one of the greatest achievements in human history.
The story that emerges is a story of adaptation to the changing environment. Using an increasingly sophisticated array of stone tools, people occupied the tundra like regions that emerged from the retreating glaciers, hunted large game in the mid-continent in the grasslands and forests and learned to take advantage of marine resources on the coasts. As much as the landscape varied so did the development of various languages and cultures once populations became settled in a region. It is estimated that when European explorers arrived in the late 15th century, well over 1000 languages were spoken by the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas.
Archaeology classifies these people through various ‘stages’ of occupation. The stages are rough time markers used to describe a certain common level of technology and subsistence practiced over a wide area. The Paleo-Indian Stage, from 10,000 to 8,000 BC saw the initial expansion of hunting bands migrating from the northwest into the southern interior reaches of North America, likely following migratory routes of the large game. These people eventually spread across the width of the continent and pushed down through Central America and into the southern continent. The lithic (stone) evidence shows a limited toolkit suitable for big game hunting, which included a typical fluted spear point as the diagnostic artefact. Many such styles of fluted points have been unearthed and all bear a similarity to the ‘Clovis’ spear point which was discovered in Clovis, New Mexico and dated to about 12,000 BC.
The Archaic Stage started in 8,000 BC and ended about 1,000 BC. Over this time frame the climactic and ecological zones of the Americas settled into the current patterns we know today. The Archaic people are noted for a change and increase in variety in the stone toolkit which also included implements made from copper. Some changes in the toolkit were direct adaptations to the new environments and the different food sources, such as nuts and plants, while others denoted the beginnings of the stratification of societies based on status and the beginnings of distinct mortuary practices.
The Post-Archaic or Formative Stage delineates between the hunter-gather type Archaic people and those culture groups who moved toward a more sedentary ‘lifeway’ which included the use of pottery, agriculture and settled villages and towns. Since introducing this newer mode of living appears to have moved from a south to north direction, the timing of the beginning of the Formative Stage varies from region to region, the more southern regions of North America earlier than the more northern regions. Some culture groups remained in the late phases of the Archaic Stage until historic time. Since the Formative Stage arrived at different times in different regions, archaeology describes these various sub-stages as ‘phases.’ In the southwest, the Basketmaker Phase saw the introduction of maize agriculture circa 1,200 BC; in the eastern half of North America, the Woodland Phases began around 1,000 BC spreading from the southeast to the northeast over a period of a few centuries.
These terms are general, descriptive titles only and do not conclude a specific lifeway to any region. When archaeology takes a more refined, regional or local view, the descriptions are broken down into ‘traditions’ or ‘cultures’ – similar modes of living apparent in the material records in certain areas for periods of time. In the Woodland period we note the introduction of agriculture, which likely replaced a horticultural tradition once maize became a widespread crop that could survive in the cooler ecological regions. We also note the rise of monumental architecture such as the simple burial mounds in earlier times to the later mound ceremonial complexes and cultures such as the Adena Culture and the later Hopewellian and Mississippian cultures over 2,500 years.
A general principle of North American archaeology holds that the earlier the time, the less material evidence , the less precise a description can be made about the people of those times. We know far more about the Hopewell culture, circa 200 BC than we do the Middle Great Lakes- St. Lawrence cultures circa 4,000 BC. Many reasons for this principle include the fact there were likely more people producing more goods in more locations in 200 BC than there were in 4,000 BC. In addition, the longer organic materials such as wood and bone are in the soil, the more they are subject to decay and eventual loss. However, even with a paucity of material data in a area for a time frame, the ever increasing sophistication of archaeology is revealing more about the people in the remote past all the time, which also includes the re-examination of artefacts recovered in earlier times.
Now that we have a general outline of the peopling of the Americas over time, is it possible to correspond the mythological epochs of the ancient indigenous people with the modern archaeological time periods? While a one-to-one match with a mythological epoch to an archaeological stage might not be possible, both are artificial constructs based on very different criteria, we may make some interesting observations of the indigenous mythological record using the data supplied from archaeology. Our first line of enquiry concerns the most ubiquitous and well known indigenous weapon system.
The Bow and Arrow
Contrary to what might be a common belief, the introduction of the bow and arrow technology was fairly recent in North America accepted to have occurred in the northwest of the continent in the third millennium BC and spreading south and eastward until it reached most areas of the continent by the middle of the first millennium AD. The use of the bow and arrow has been confidently documented to be present in Europe 9,000 BC and much earlier in Africa.
The intrusion of the bow and arrow weapon system in North America may have taken two routes south; one route from the northwest directly south and then east into the interior; another from the northeast, from the Arctic region, into the northeast part of the continent. There are also hints that the technology may have been present in the southern portions of North America, in the late Paleo-Indian or early Archaic stages, but these claims are still being examined. There is also a hint that developing the bow and arrow technology may have occurred in-situ, but evidence for this is scant.
The adoption of the bow and arrow was not uniform with some regions not adopting the technology until late in the millennium to after 1,000 AD. There could be many reasons for this, mainly the effectiveness of the bow and arrow compared to the contemporary weapon system of the spear-thrower or atlatl system. Knowledge of the bow and arrow was present in Mesoamerica, but appeared to be another tool in the hunting kit alongside the spear-thrower in those regions and this appears to be the case with most cultures in the early adoption of the technology. Archaeology knows this from the presence of spear thrower projectile points, known as ‘darts’ in the same horizon as projectile points, identified as arrowheads.
There are two main points established here: that the spear throwing weapon system predates the bow and arrow technology, usually by thousands of years; and that the bow and arrow was in fairly widespread use in North America by the 500-700 AD. This may allow us to make correspondence between the mythological epochs discussed in Chapter 3, with the archaeological periods discussed above.
We find that stories which include a reference to the bow and arrow most likely were created – or innovated upon – in the late Archaic to early/middle Formative stages. We have to be careful about this assertion however, and merely propose the possibility since myths, such as those that have been presented, were likely formed over a very large time period. In addition, where stories that present the bow and arrow as an familiar icon to the originating culture (i.e. where the characters play with the bow and arrow), we can assume that by the time the story was created, the bow and arrow was a familiar technology. This would place the creation of the stories – in their present form – in the early to middle Formative, around 500 AD. Without disrespecting the implications of dating these stories, we only need to use this contentious idea and that is to place the bow and arrow and the lacrosse stick in a contemporary position. We might say that, according to the indigenous tradition, the lacrosse stick is of 1,500-1,000 years ago.
Subscribing indigenous oral tradition and lore to an archaeological context is iffy, however it is not unknown that archaeology has used historical accounts for investigation. The famous Heinrich Schliemann used the Homeric tale of Helen as inspiration for his digs at Troy; modern day archaeology has an on-going fascination with biblical references; and so on. The main problem with indigenous lore is that it’s main transmission was by oral repetition and there are no dates to ascribe to manuscripts or firm dates provided in the lore itself. We have also described some of the other problems with indigenous mythology including the fragmentary nature of the body of work and the Western extrapolations inadvertently included through translation. So any claims we can make regarding archaeological findings corresponding with indigenous stories can only be tentative .
Archaeology tells us that where the bow and arrow was adopted it replaced the spear throwing weapon system whose chief artefacts are the dart, which is a larger form of point compared to the arrowhead; a few examples of the actual spear throwing device or atlatl which, since they were made of organic material susceptible to the acidic soil conditions, are very rare finds; and finally, some intriguing and controversial atlatl weights sometimes referred to as ‘bird stones.’ Archaeology can make this argument for replacement, sometimes over a large period , by placing darts and arrowheads within the same context in a particular site which would indicate a gradual replacement process of the spear thrower.
The word ‘atlatl’ is derived from the Aztecan word for the spear throwing weapon system in widespread use in North America prior to the intrusion of the bow and arrow and still in use in some regions of the Americas when the first European explorers arrived in the later 15th and early 16th centuries.
While designs of the atlatl may vary from region to region and from time period to time period, the function is more or less the same: a rod-like, hand held device with a spur at one end into which the end of a spear is fitted to propel the spear a greater distance than by hand. Only a few intact examples of the ancient atlatl survive, mostly gathered from the dry south eastern archaeological sites, although some examples are known from Florida and the Midwest, usually in an incomplete form.
Using the atlatl is identified through the projectile point, the ‘dart,’ which is generally larger than a typical arrowhead, but smaller than a spear point. These dart projective points have been identified as far back as the late Paleo-Indian period, but may have been a technology in the toolkit of one or more people who migrated across Beringia, taking time to diffuse across the continents. There is also some suggestion that the atlatl may have been independently invented in North America even though the spear throwing technology was well known in Europe and Asia by the time of the first waves of migrants across Beringia. One unique variation of the spear thrower to North America is the addition of a weight to the underside of the device, although the actual practicality of such a weight is a matter of considerable debate.
The mechanical function of the atlatl is also a matter of some debate, however the easiest explanation is that the atlatl acts as an extension of the arm and allows for up to a 60% increase in the distance that a dart can be thrown compared to a hand thrown spear. The advantages of the atlatl over the spear also include an increase velocity which leads to increased penetrating power for the business end of the dart from a greater distance away from the target. For the hunting of large and potentially dangerous mammals, this was an important advantage over the thrown or thrusted spear. , the atlatl could be used with one hand, while the other hand remained free. For hunters in boats – or warriors with shields – this aspect was important . For the former, we have examples of the atlatl use in historical times by the marine hunting people in the Arctic, while the latter was demonstrated as the weapon of choice in Mesoamerica who had atlatls that could launch armour piercing darts.
Using the atlatl extends over large portions of the Americas and spans thousands of years. The adoption of the bow and arrow in some locales may have been delayed due to the efficiency of the atlatl and its adaptation to contemporary hunting methods or environments. As we have seen, for some cultures, the two weapon systems co-existed in many regions for a significant period while in other regions, the adoption of the bow and arrow was somewhat quick and abrupt.
What we can gather from this, for our purposes, is that the concept of a device that extends the potential of a thrown projective was known for thousands of years in North America. In a study of the function and performance of weighted atlatls, Ana Raymond illustrates the uncanny resemblance between the body movements of an atlatl thrower and the same required to throw a lacrosse ball. Even though the lacrosse stick is held in two hands, the top hand is usually regarded as having a stabilizing and targeting function and not partaking in the actual application of force to the throw. While this might suggest that some atlatls were thrown by two hands (and provide a neat function for the contested atlatl weights or ‘bird-stones’), that notion is out of scope for our purposes. The focus now is on a device-aided projectile weapon system, but instead of projecting high velocity darts, the projectiles are blunt objects such as stone spheres or balls. Before we get to the possible evidence of such a weapon system, a small sidestep is required.
The Tale of Two Games
One of the most widely played and popular games of the protohistoric indigenous people of North America was the hoop-and-pole game. Essentially the game was played with a hoop, which was rolled across the ground, often especially prepared for the occasion, while players threw poles or spears at it to score points. Often the scoring of points was determined by how close the pole or spear came to the hoop for rest. Sometimes the hoop was shot at with arrows or with small, finely tipped darts, similar to those use in the well-known, modern game of darts.
The implements of the game, number of participants and scoring procedures was as varied as the people that played it. The most striking variations were in the design of the hoops to be the targets. The sizes of hoops could range from 12 inches in diameter to as small at 4 inches; they could be elaborately decorated with the inside of the hoop webbed with gut or leather string, resembling a modern day ‘dreamcatcher’ or they might have simple webbing, dividing the hoop into quarters. The outside of the hoop may have been similarly decorated with paint, feathers, leather thongs or notches. It appeared to the first observers of this game that the decoration of the hoop had function regarding the scoring.
Most variants described in Cullin’s book reveal that the game was played by pairs of players either against each other or arranged in teams. The game could go on for hours and was not only a great amusement and social event, but a time for wagering between players and supporters. When the hoop was rolled, often the players would run after it and either try to hit the hoop with their projectile or guess where the hoop would stop and try to throw their projectile to come closest to that spot. Some early observers wrote about the complexity of scoring, while others remarked on the difficulty of playing the game.
An interesting variant of the game called ‘chunkey’ was played with stone disks, called ‘discoidals’ and was first noted in the southeastern North America as being very popular among people that lived in that region. The gaming stones were from 2 inches to 6 inches in diameter and made from a variety of pecked and polished stone of suitable thicknesses. The usual variety of the chunkey stone had one or two concave sides, like a very shallow bowl shape. Ceramic varieties were also noted, either being created for that purpose or fashioned from broken pieces of pottery.
Chunkey was very similar to the hoop-and-pole game in that poles, spears of arrows were projected at the disk rolling on its edge by pairs of players looking to score points. What set chunkey apart from the more common hoop-and-pole game was elaborate ‘arena’ in which the game was played – which could be a tamped clay court with mounds on either side for spectators. Chunkey was an important game and appeared to have a ritual or spiritual function in the communities in which it was played.
Discoidal gaming stones have been found in many archaeological sites throughout the southeast to both east and west Mississippi regions, north to, Kentucky and Ohio and sometimes beyond, attesting to the wide dispersal of the game. Famous 19th century American artist George Catlin painted a picture of the Mandan playing “Tchung-kee” in North Dakota in 1832, although the Mandan were thought to originate much further east, perhaps in Wisconsin or the middle Mississippi area. In addition, the time range for these stones in confirmed contexts dates to about 600 AD although there is hints that the game may been played much earlier by the Adena Culture who occupied the Ohio Valley and surrounding districts in the first millennium BC.
We need to add a caveat here: not all disk shaped artefacts are gaming stones and could have been used for other purposes such as grinding stones, hammer stones, net weights or some other discovered purpose. For a site to contain a ‘discoidal’ does not necessarily mean the discoidal was a chunkey gaming stone.
What we are most interested here – as far as the hoop-and-pole or chunkey games are concerned – is their co-existence and use with the atlatl spear throwing technology. If the bow and arrow replaced the atlatl by 700 AD, there would seem very little overlap with chunkey and the atlatl unless more such gaming type discoidals are discovered in context of the people who existed prior to 700 AD. It is possible that the gaming stones found in later dated archaeological digs had their origin in the earlier past mainly because such stones were prized and very valuable possessions passed down from generation to generation. Whether this behaviour was in effect 2000 years ago is left to conjecture.
The adoption of the bow and arrow technology was not a sudden nor uniform process in all regions the co-existence of both technologies is recognized in some areas for several centuries as determined by the diagnostics of the projectile points where they existed in the same context in a site. It is likely that the atlatl was used to hurl the darts or spears in chunkey or hoop-and-pole games in ancient times.
Why did the ancient indigenous peoples hurl poles, spears, darts or atlatl projectiles at a hoop or chunkey stone rolling away from them on the ground, likely at great speed? Some researchers leave it up to simple amusement or play often as part of a sacred ceremonial cycle where the game was developed from an ancient ritual. Others, noting the ritual and possible ceremonial aspects of the game have concluded there is a fertility or sexual element to the game which includes that only men could play and that the act of the spear penetrating the hoop represented the human sexual act. A few have concluded that the skills used aided in keeping the warrior in good shape and sharp with the skills exercised in war.
While some might be possible in a limited way, to limited cultures, there does not explain the hoop and pole games that appear universal. No doubt that as the game evolved over the centuries and was diffused over a large geographical area to different cultures, the needs and meaning of the games underwent sort of modification. We can see this action in effect when we examine the bat and ball game from its earliest inceptions in Europe, to the beginnings of cricket to modern American baseball. In this way, the sexual aspect is denied because, in many cultures, the object of the game was not to penetrate the hoop, but approximate its position in time and space and land closest to the hoop or stone when it rested. If there was a sexual aspect to the hoop and pole game, the rules changed to reflect something else.
There is an obvious explanation however, which might reveal the great antiquity of the game and lend itself to the more ritualistic aspects of the game. In many cases the rules as noted in historic times by observation of the actual playing of the game reveal that a better, more universal explanation that the hoop and pole game it is a substitute for hunting smaller game animals.
This explanation becomes more plausible in context of the faunal remains of a given archaeological site and the subsistence patterns, especially of those people who relied on small game for a significant portion of their diet, which was a pattern than took shape once the megafauna went extinct in the late Paleo-Indian Stage. As the numbers of large mammals – mastodon, mammoths, ground sloth and giant bears – dwindled on the continent, people had to adapt to new hunting strategies away from the big game hunting strategies and rely more on the hunter-gather lifeway which included the hunting of small game such as deer, beaver, rabbit and whatever else suitable small game was available in a region. With the larger, but slower animals, hunting would have required the use of large thrusting spears or lances, to continually penetrate the animal until it succumbed, while the new subsistence pattern required the use of lighter more portable weapons, such as the atlatl dart technology and, eventually the bow and arrow, in which the hunter could use to while chase smaller, faster game.
It is not by chance then that the projectile in the hoop-and-pole or chunkey game is used to hit or estimate the path of a target moving away from the participant. By playing this game, the players were simply honing the skills required for successfully hunting small game and ensuring the continued success of the people, a sacred duty . The community engaged in such activities to hone the skills most required by them and made the practice of such skills fun and entertaining. Since there appeared to be a distinct division of labour within the ancient indigenous cultures, with the males taking the hunting roles, while the females were the primary gatherers, this would point to the male-only role in the game. Male participation was paramount since it was these skills which helped them fill their role in the community.
This brings us to the second game, lacrosse, which we might compare, in a general way, to the hoop-and-pole or chunkey game and draw conclusions about its utility and origin.
The problem with lacrosse in the archaeological record, as has been mentioned earlier, is that since the implements of the game are made of perishable materials, the implements of the game have never been identified in a prehistoric archaeological context. The lack of this direct, material evidence will only allow a circumstantial investigation of the possibility of the implements existing in prehistoric times and inferences about it possible use. The possibility of the ancient existence of lacrosse requires that we examine the implements of the game from a conceptual basis which would conclude those ancient people could have conceived of the game.
The first article of investigation, is the lacrosse stick itself. While no lacrosse sticks have ever been recovered from an archaeological site, like the atlatl, there is still the possibility, slim as it is, that some archaeological remains might be identified in association with lacrosse. The survival of wooden articles over the centuries diminished . In the many of the soils in most locations in the eastern half of the continent, wood artefacts are very rare and usually survive as bits and pieces which make diagnostic identification very difficult. In some sites, notably in bogs in Florida, the salt caves of Kentucky or the arid areas of California, some wooden implements are found more or less intact.
Conceptually, however, there is plenty of material evidence those ancient peoples knew of using an intermediary device for hurling or launching projectiles. At the very latest, the bow and arrow technology was in widespread use in North America by 700 AD; by the earliest, the ubiquitous atlatl was a fairly common technology. There is suggestive evidence that the bola technology was in use in some parts of North America, at least well known in the Arctic, and was a familiar technology in many regions in South America. There could have also been the possibility of slings used to hurl stones at prey in ancient times .
Our key here though is the atlatl. A wooden stick or board device used to hurl darts or spears suggests that similar devices were conceptually possible for the ancient peoples. The throwing motion of the atlatl bears similarity to the throwing motion required to shoot a lacrosse ball, especially if some atlatls were devices designed for the use in two hands. The atlatl was a device given to great variation and innovation in some cultures and this ability to improve the design and function of the device, i.e. with weight or bird stones, also reveals that the ancient people thought about the atlatl in terms of improvement of form and performance. We can safely say that developing the atlatl was no accident and shows an evolution of the device in some areas, until the time the bow and arrow replaced it in later times.
We must note recognize a similar variation in the game of lacrosse based upon the form of the stick in use in historic times. While this subject will be examined in more detail later, it is useful now to recognize those different stick forms. In the more northerly regions referred to the ‘Great Lakes’ area, the lacrosse stick is a one piece device about three feet long terminated with a three to four inch diameter loop at one end. The loop comprises a tapered end of the stick bend in on itself and tied off. It is then strung with a simple cross pattern of lacing comprising two or three strings. Similar to the looped stick construction, the ‘Southeast’ stick is often smaller, about two feet in length termination in a loop with a simple web lace construction. With the Southeast stick, one piece is halved, tapered in the middle and the stick is bent in half and lashed at the handle to form a teardrop shaped loop at the end.
Contrasting these two basic stick forms is the more elaborate ‘Northeast’ stick more familiar in design to modern lacrosse sticks and exemplified by the wooden sticks in historical times. This stick is about four feet long with the end bent into a hook shape. The end of the stick is then laced with a complex webbing to form a triangular area with the outside ‘sidewall’ strings attached to the handle. With the two former designs, the ‘pocket’ of the stick – the part of the stick to hold the ball while in play – is formed by the wooden loops whereas in the latter stick, a pocket must be formed in the webbed portion, suggesting a shallow basket.
The webbing in the Northeast style stick bears a resemblance to the webbing used for some variations of the hoop used in the hoop and pole game. This concludes that such lacing techniques and patterns were familiar across a wide area of North America and the art of weaving and cordage was well known to the very ancient people as many examples of these crafts have been recovered in their material remains, some as early as 7,000 years ago. Since the age of textile creation has been discovered to be a very ancient craft, it is likely that the techniques were brought over with the Paleo-Indian people when the continent was first populated. However, since textiles, weaving and cordage were made from perishable materials, finding these remains is a rare occurrence.
Basketry also gives us some clue on the ability and conception of weaving plant or wood materials into the bends required to make the lacrosse sticks. Although complex basketry, which preceded ceramics, have not been evident to a great degree in the eastern half of North America, again, because of the perishable nature of the materials used for baskets, several very ancient specimens have been recovered or concluded from Paleo-Indian archaeological remains which suggests that basketry was another craft that originated outside of North America.
With the discovery of objects such as atlatls, textiles and basketry, we can easily see how the materials and techniques required to create a lacrosse stick were available to the ancient people from early times even if the evidence is all circumstantial. But how about the projectile or lacrosse ‘ball?’ Is there archaeological evidence for these artefacts?
In historical times, most of the lacrosse balls were made of perishable materials such as a round, leather pouch stuff with animal hair or grass, sometimes with a small round stone at the centre; or they may have been made of wood or a combination of wood and leather sheathing. Any evidence of this object has not been found in the archaeological record for all the reasons. For such an object to be preserved it would have to be constructed from a non-perishable material like bone, metal or stone. We might already possess samples of those projectiles already.
In the common lexicon of archaeology, the word ‘hammerstone’ is often used to describe spherical, fist-sized objects used as hammers to chip or break apart stone or some other utility that required hammering, such as pegging or nailing. Not all spherical stones are hammerstones and not all hammerstones are spherical. Most hammerstones are diagnosed by the wear patterns on the object itself. With use of the hammerstone against other stone, for the creation of projectile points for instance, the wear patterns are fairly similar and provide a distinction. Some hammerstones suggest use for breaking bone, grinding plant materials such as seeds or abrading stone, wood or ceramic.
There are also other spherical or ovate stone objects often identified as net-sinkers, bola stones or boiling stones, which come with a distinct diagnostic wear pattern or form. However, there are also spherical or ovate objects recovered in the material remains of the ancient people over a wide time period that do not have the similar diagnostic and could conceivably be projectiles. Some samples appear to be prized objects with no wear use patterns and some have been polished with care and appear in contexts outside of use as immediate hammerstones.
The suggestion here these artefacts were gaming stones, while possible, is secondary to their use as blunt projectiles for hunting. In that context, their rarity is easily explained, especially in the more northern regions where glaciation created and exposed an abundant supply of smoothed gravels which contained plenty of spherical or ovate objects which would have been suitable as projectiles. With a spear, atlatl dart or arrow, which would be much easier to spot for retrieval and later use, the blunt projectile might have been lost in the underbrush while hunting and not so easily retrievable and, since there was little investment in their creation in regions with an endless supply of such objects, their loss was inconsequential with only the remarkable specimens retained for one purpose .
Archaeology has undergone some significant transformations with developing use diagnostic techniques in the past century, but there was a time – and to a certain degree is still present today – where amateur artefact collectors may have missed or ignored such stones when retrieving the more valuable objects such as arrow, dart or spear points, pottery or figurines. While they dug through the debris of those material remains, they may have simply tossed aside rounded stones as so much typical and useless gravel. Modern excavation techniques are not so sloppy and it would be hoped that should stones that could be blunt projectiles are discovered, they are retained and studied for possible wear use.
As we have seen then, while there is no direct material evidence for the game of lacrosse or using a blunt projectile technology in the modern archaeological record, the inference is clear those ancient peoples possessed the concepts, materials and techniques to develop a blunt projectile technology and had this knowledge in very ancient times, possibly as far back as the Paleo-Indian period. This leaves us with the circumstantial possibility, but we now need to examine the game of lacrosse as pointing to a hunting weapon system. For that, we will need to look at the evidence of the game from a different perspective, that of cultural anthropology.
NEXT: 5. The Anthropology
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