My wife and I just got back from visiting our daughter and son-in-law at Scott Air Force base. One of our stops was the Cahokia Indian Mound near Saint Louis, Missouri, the site of the largest Native American city north of Mexico.
Beginning around 900 AD, the Cahokians, a Mississippian people related to the Sioux, broke the ground with stone hoes and transported dirt by basket to construct the central mound, which became the heart of an urban center of up to 40,000. The chief and a handful of priests lived on the mound, and the city grew around them.
The mound is higher than you think, as you can see from this view from the top. Just over the first stand of trees in the foreground is a burial mound. Past that you can see wooden posts from the Cahokia Woodhenge. Downtown Saint Louis lies on the horizon.
Here’s a closer view of the Cahokia Woodhenge. Like Stonehenge in England, it served as a calendar that marked solstices and equinoxes. A priest standing on a platform in the middle of Woodhenge’s five circles of cedar posts would perform a ceremony called “Greeting the Sun,” during which he would observe and announce significant astronomical events. The posts standing in the site today were authentically recreated in 1985 using stone tools similar to the ones displayed in the nearby Cahokia museum:
Gazing down on the Cahokia Woodhenge from the great mound, I imagined the excitement and sense of mystery the people felt on the completion of a multi-generational work that connected them to their past, the land on which they depended, and the celestial powers that guided their lives.
My interest in primitive weapons — essential lore for any sci-fi/fantasy writer — began when I first found arrowheads in the freshly plowed fields on the tobacco farm where I grew up. From my first encounter with them, these amazing artifacts exerted a hypnotic fascination over me. After all, they were survivors from a past unimaginably different from my own world. They were weapons that were essential for survival, and at the same time, beautiful works of art.
Bookish kid that I was, I absorbed every field guide to North American archaeology the High Point Library had. Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years:
1. They’re not all “arrowheads.”
Although we tend to associate American Indians with the bow and arrow, they didn’t develop that weapon until about 500 AD. In fact, “arrowheads” or, as archaeologists prefer, “projectile points,” tend to be quite small. And a hickory bow couldn’t generate the potential energy required to kill a bear or cougar — much less a mastodon.
Larger game required a powerful weapon, and the atlatl fits the bill. North Carolina’s Sissipahaws, Catawbas, and Tuscaroras mastered this ingenious and tricky weapon. I’ve made and used atlatls, and believe me, they have a long learning curve — harder to learn, in my opinion, than the sling. They’re easy to throw but require many weeks of practice to learn to aim properly.
Think of it as a custom-made lever for throwing darts. The power of an atlatl must be witnessed to be believed.
Larger points were generally used as spear points and knives, which were fitted with wooden handles, as I’ve demonstrated below. A flint knife with a good edge makes a very effective means of cutting and skinning. (You can click any image to enlarge it.)
2. They’re older than you think
The Clovis point, as illustrated in the first photo above, dates to between 10-15,000 years ago. It was introduced into North America with the migration of the Clovis people who continued down into South America.
3. Distinctive styles emerged over time
As the migration of Siberian peoples continued in the Americas, local cultures arose, which produced their own unique weapons. Over time, projectile point styles changed.
When I visited the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, my favorite display was an arrangement of flawless points sorted by time period. Clovis points came first, followed by styles that resembled those that immediately evolved from the Clovis in North Carolina, which in turn were followed by styles distinctly different from anything I’d ever seen. So once you’ve identified a point’s style, you know its approximate age.
4. There’s purpose in their beauty
Just as the SR-71 sports a design determined by its purpose, so do projectile points. Check out this Guilford rounded base point from my collection:
This seemingly delicate creation was meticulously formed using pressure flaking, a slow process of sharpening the edge by pressing it with a pointed instrument, as opposed to striking the point. Its perfect proportions ensure a smooth, accurate flight.
5. Growing reliance on European technology tainted the quality of projectile points
Hatchets and projectile points made from metal, and of course, flintlocks, gradually replaced traditional Indian weapons. Take a look at these Randolph points I found, which date back to the early 1700s:
Not quite as elegant as their ancestors, are they?
American Indian weapons have popped up in some of my works, including Gooseberry and Aztec Midnight. There’s a raw, elemental allure to primitive weapons that’s inspired many works of fantasy fiction. Learning about them connects us to a past that deserves to be remembered.
What are the Alebrijes so excited about? Their favorite novella, Aztec Midnight, is now available in paperback from Novel Fox. Of course, the Kindle version is cool, and it’s nice to be able to carry a library in your reader or iPhone, but there’s nothing quite like the feel of a real book in your hands. That cover is truly a thing of beauty.
Now, about the Alebrijes: They’re fantastic monsters folk artists in Oaxaca carve from copal, a wood Oaxacans believe is magical. Some, such as the lizard monster center right, are made of papier-mâché. They were “discovered” by the traditional art world when a gallery owner from Cuernavaca (where much of the action in Aztec Midnight takes place) started buying them in the 1930s. Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo found inspiration in them and helped further popularize them.
The magical creatures shown above are from my wife’s collection.