Louisiana’s First Hunters

Finding arrow heads is a common occurrence in many portions of Louisiana, especially among hunters. Ever wonder how the arrows got there, and what you are legally bound to do if you find one?

The old logging road was a promising place to look for sign. It ran through a year-old clearcut before dropping off a slight ridge into Winn Parish’s Dugdemona swamp.

Before timber harvesting, the ridge had been covered with a variety of oak and hickory trees, providing a rich food source. It also was the nearest high ground that would serve as a refuge when Dugdemona River inevitably experienced its annual flood. A hard rain a few days earlier made scouting conditions perfect.After walking for some time, I spotted it right in the middle of the road. A large deer track? Scrape? Droppings? No. There lying fully exposed in the washed out road bed was a yellowish prehistoric stone dart point — clear evidence that I was not the first deer hunter to walk this ridge on the Hammock Hunting Club.

Louisiana has been the Sportsman’s Paradise for thousands of years, a fact proven by the prehistoric points and pottery that are scattered all over the state.

Today’s hunters stalk deer, squirrels, ducks and turkeys with flat-shooting rifles and magnum shotguns, but in the distant past the game and weapons were much different. The first Native Americans, or Paleo (PAY-lee-oh) Indians, probably wandered into this region some 12,000 years ago armed with spears.

Paleo spear points are surprisingly small. Only 2 to 3 inches in length, they are streamlined, as if designed for sticking an animal and pulling it out. They also are often shaped like a willow leaf with a flute (or groove) on both sides. Many Paleo points are made from beautiful Texas flint, indicating perhaps the direction from which the Indians arrived in Louisiana.

Such points are fairly rare in Louisiana. This is partly because there were comparatively few Paleo Indians to leave points behind and because their camp sites have been covered by many feet of siltation left by the annual floods.

Still, Paleo points are sometimes found in the piney hills of North Louisiana, the Macon Ridge in Northeast Louisiana, and other elevated areas where flooding does not occur.

The Paleo Indians traveled in small nomadic bands and probably never stayed in one spot long. Arriving during the waning days of the last great Ice Age, they found a Louisiana that was totally alien to us today. The climate was cooler and dryer, and the landscape included large areas of grasslands.

Instead of deer and turkey, the Paleo Indians bagged such behemoths as the elephant-like mastodons and mammoths, big horned bison and Ice Age horses. The next time you cuss out your trusty .30-06 for failing to make a clean kill on a 150-pound whitetail, imagine what it must have been like facing down a 5-ton elephant while armed with a spear.

Approximately 8,000 years ago, the Ice Age came to an end, and Louisiana was transformed into the land we know today. The weather became hot and humid; much of the grasslands gave way to forests, lakes, and swamps; and the mega fauna was replaced by our modern animals.

In addition to deer, bear and turkeys, however, there also were large herds of buffalo and perhaps even a few elk. The Native Americans were forced to adapt to this new environment, became hunter-gatherers, and developed new tools. These people are frequently referred to as Archaic (ar-KAY-ick) Indians.

Archaic people still hunted, but they also fully exploited the environment by fishing and gathering nuts, berries, shellfish and various edible plants. They stayed in one place longer but probably moved with the seasons to take advantage of ripening nuts and plants.

Louisiana’s rich environment meant Indians did not have to spend every waking hour looking for food, and thus the Archaic people had more time on their hands.

As a result, the Indians began developing more elaborate cultures. For example, it has been found in the last few years that Louisiana’s Archaic people along the Ouachita River were among the first Native Americans to construct the famous Indian mounds.

Evidence of a new weapon — the atlatl (AT-lat-uhl) — appears in Archaic sites. While Paleo Indians may also have used the atlatl, it is not until the Archaic period that archaeologists actually find physical evidence of it in Louisiana.

An atlatl was a wooden spear-thrower that fired a dart (essentially a large arrow 4 to 5 feet long). About 18 inches long, the atlatl had a bone or antler hook fitted into one end, on which the back of the dart was inserted. The dart then was held in place with the thumb and forefinger. The hunter took a step and slung the atlatl overhead, releasing the dart when he reached maximum acceleration. Thus, by artificially lengthening his arm, an Indian could sling a dart much farther and with much more power than by hand. Armed with a sharp stone projectile point, an atlatl dart could bring down any game.

Point styles changed when the atlatl was adopted. Since Archaic Indians were not as nomadic as the Paleo people, they did not have easy access to good Texas flint. Most Archaic points are made from local chert, which usually does not flake well, and, as a result, the points sometimes are rather crude-looking.

Some collectors mistakenly believe these points must be extremely old, dating back when the Indians had not yet perfected their flint-knapping technique. Actually, most of the crude points are younger than the Paleo points. Their quality has nothing to do with point-making ability, but everything to do with raw material.

Atlatl points are about the same size as Paleo points, but they lack the flute and usually have square/rectangular stems and square shoulders or barbs near the base. This latter trait may have been designed to help the dart remain in the animal. As the game ran off, the dart would cause more internal damage as it brushed against trees.

Atlatl points are one of the most common type of stone points found in Louisiana. Most of what people call “arrowheads” actually are atlatl points.

Approximately 4,000 years ago, Louisiana’s Indians entered a final prehistoric phase known as the Neo Period. Over the next 3,500 years, the Native American culture in Louisiana changed numerous times as the people adopted and abandoned different traits.

The magnificent Poverty Point Indians began the period by building elaborate earthworks, developing a large trade network and making fine jewelry. This culture eventually collapsed mysteriously and was followed by a rather primitive hunting/gathering period.

Afterward, other highly developed cultures like the Marksville, Caddo and Plaquemine/Mississippian Indians emerged and built large Indian mounds, sometimes containing rich burials.

The Neo Indians saw many changes. Agriculture was adopted toward the end of the period, and the Indians began following a more sedentary village life. Elaborate religions, chiefdoms and class structures also were developed, and new technologies appeared.

The bow and arrow was introduced to Louisiana approximately 1,000 years ago. Much more accurate and easier to use than the atlatl, it quickly became the preferred weapon.

Louisiana Indians made some of the finest bows in America, especially the Caddo Indians of Northwest Louisiana. Made from hickory or Osage orange (bois d’arc), these bows were sophisticated and deadly. Bowstrings were constructed from twisted deerskin, fiber or bark, and arrows from switch cane, dogwood switches and hickory. Feather fletching was taken from hawks, ducks, geese or turkey, and either glued on the shaft or tied with wet deer sinew.

Although the bow pull was usually 40 to 50 pounds, historic accounts indicate the Indian bow was deadly and that some archers could consistently hit targets up to 120 yards.

Archaeologists excavating a 1,000-year-old Caddo burial discovered a very large, 6-foot-tall Indian warrior. Lying next to him was a bow nearly 6 1/2 feet long. Closer examination showed it to have a leather grip and recurved tips. The ancient bow would rival any longbow manufactured today.

With the introduction of the bow, stone points became much smaller. In shape, arrow points look much like atlatl dart points, with stems and barbs, but they are only 1/2- to 1-inch in length. True arrow points are what many people refer to as “bird points.”

Early Spanish explorers learned to respect these “primitive” bows. While exploring the southeastern United States from 1539-1542, Hernando de Soto’s party had frequent clashes with Indians and saw first-hand the bow’s killing power.

One mounted officer was ambushed and hit in the thigh by an arrow. The missile penetrated his armor, leg, saddle and horse, and left him pinned to the animal. After pulling out the arrow to dismount him, the Spaniards were amazed to find it did not even have a stone point. The arrow was made from cane, and its tip had been sharpened and then hardened in a fire.

After another battle, one of the horses suddenly dropped dead, but no wound could be found on it. The Spaniards discovered an arrow imbedded in the breastbone from the inside! An arrow had been fired at the animal from the rear as it galloped away. The small bird point had cut its way entirely through the horse lengthwise and was nearly sticking out the breast.

While trying to escape the region, de Soto’s survivors also noted that they were attacked by Indians in the modern-day Vidalia area while floating down the Mississippi River. Interestingly, these Native Americans (perhaps Natchez Indians) were using atlatls, instead of bows.

Hunting for artifacts left behind by our first sportsmen is much like hunting deer or any other game. You must have knowledge of your quarry’s habits, food sources, travel routes and bedding areas.

Evidence of Louisiana’s prehistoric population is found throughout the state, but sometimes imagination and a sharp eye are necessary to find it. While some sites contain visible mounds or are large village sites, many are barely noticeable.

I participated in an archaeological survey of the upper Dugdemona River some time back with Dr. H.F. “Pete” Gregory of Northwestern State University. Two summers were spent surveying the river from Winnfield to near Quitman. Nearly 200 archaeological sites were discovered, some dating back to the Paleo period, but most were very small. In fact, many contained just a few pottery sherds or flint chips, indicating where a pot was dropped or some hunter paused to sharpen up his atlatl dart point.

When searching for such sites, archaeologists remember two key things: water and dry ground. Indians had to have water for drinking, cooking, fishing and transportation. Virtually all archaeological sites are located near a source of water.

Dry land also was essential to escape the frequent floods that inundated this region. Any ridge, hill, hammock or other elevated spot near a branch, bayou or large lake may contain artifacts.

Dark-colored soil can also be an indication of an archaeological site. Years of accumulated human and animal waste and discarded food adds organic material to the soil and turns it dark. Archaeologists refer to this occupation level with accumulated debris the midden. However, in farming country, such dark spots often prove to be sharecropping shotgun house sites.

Small to medium-sized streams seem to have more sites than large rivers. This is because rivers like the Red and Mississippi frequently change course and have long ago eaten away archaeological sites or buried them so deeply with siltation that they cannot be found.

When walking river beds, keep a close eye on deep cut banks. Often, buried prehistoric middens show up as narrow, dark-colored bands of soil running parallel to the water. Within this midden there might be bits of flint chips, pottery or other artifacts.

Imagination is essential to finding prehistoric sites because the land has changed so much over the last 12,000 years. Louisiana’s waterways, especially, are fickle and are constantly shifting positions. What appears today to be a stagnant slough might have been a major river in the distant past.

Also, the water table was much higher during prehistoric times, and there were many springs that are no longer visible. When I was a boy, we often found atlatl dart points in my grandparents’ pasture. The number found indicated the area probably was a popular gathering place, yet there is no visible source of water nearby. Undoubtedly, there was a spring head in the area that has long since dried up.

If searching for Louisiana’s first sportsmen seems appealing, one must be strongly cautioned. Today, there are very strict federal and state laws that protect archaeological sites. and a collector will face stiff penalties if they are broken.

Tom Eubanks, Louisiana’s state archaeologist, points out that “the Louisiana Archaeological Resources Act governs artifact collecting on private and state land.” Generally, surface collecting (picking up exposed artifacts on the ground’s surface) is permissible if you are on privately owned land and have permission from the landowner.

Walking over a plowed field on a neighbor’s farm or through a new clear-cut on your deer lease can sometimes be a rewarding experience. Never, however, enter privately owned land without permission. A stone point is not worth being arrested for trespassing.

One of the greatest threats to archaeological sites today comes from pothunters. These people dig into sites, particularly burial sites, to gather, and sometimes sell, artifacts. One should never dig into any archaeological site. Not only is it frequently against the law, but digging also destroys the site and much information that is contained within it.

Private citizens are not allowed to collect artifacts from state land, including wildlife management areas.

“State law prohibits the digging or collecting of Indian artifacts on state property or the sale of such artifacts,” Eubanks warns.

He points out a first offense can carry a fine up to $10,000, a year in jail, and the confiscation of all equipment used (including boats and vehicles).

The only exception to this law is when an archaeologist receives permission for archaeological work from the agency with jurisdiction over the property and receives a permit from the secretary of the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism.

Outdoorsmen must also be very careful while on federal land, such as Kisatchie National Forest, military reservations like Fort Polk, or the many national wildlife areas in the state.

Alan Dorian, head of Kisatchie’s tribal relations program, states “the primary law protecting archaeological resources on federal land is the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act, or ARPA. It prohibits the excavation of archaeological sites or artifacts on federal land without a permit.”

Depending on the amount of damage inflicted on the site, the perpetrator may be cited for either a misdemeanor or a felony.

Federal agencies take this law very seriously and will arrest violators. Dorian states that since 1989, Kisatchie National Forest has successfully prosecuted all nine cases that were sent to court.

“That is the highest prosecution rate of any national forest in the South,” he notes.

One of the quirks of ARPA is that it does not prohibit surface-collecting because President Jimmy Carter was a collector and would not sign the law if it prohibited him from pursuing his hobby.

“However,” Dorian points out, “other laws do prohibit surface collecting on federal land.”

While the penalty for such activity is not as harsh as for digging into a site, sportsmen should be aware that they can be cited for picking up a stone point on federal land.

Would-be collectors also should be aware that federal and state laws protect Indian burial sites, even when they are located on private property.

According to Joe Saunders, state regional archaeologist, the Louisiana Unmarked Human Burial Sites Preservation Act protects any unmarked human burial in Louisiana, not just those of prehistoric Indians. If a pothunter purposely disturbs a burial site, even if it is an Indian mound on his own property, he is in violation of this act.

Saunders warns, “The penalty can be a fine up to $5,000, one year in jail, and the confiscation of your vehicle. Pothunters also can be held financially liable for hiring an archaeological crew to come in and mitigate the damage caused to the site. This easily can come to thousands of dollars.”

In regard to this act, however, Eubanks points out that “traditional agricultural and lumbering practices are exempt from this law. In other words, if a farmer has been plowing a burial mound or other site, he may continue to do so, even if it is being disturbed. However, we would try to work with the landowner to find a better solution.”

Both Eubanks and Saunders point out that state law requires individuals to report to local authorities any human bones they might discover. If they prove to be prehistoric, archaeologists then can receive permission from a state commission to excavate the site. Afterward, if a Native American tribe can prove ethnic affinity with the burial, it can reclaim the skeletal remains and artifacts for disposition. If no tribe can prove an ethnic affinity, the skeletal remains and artifacts become the property of the state.

The study of Louisiana’s first sportsmen is exciting. If, while scouting out your next deer hunt, you should find evidence of these early hunters, notify a professional so the site will not be lost. Archaeologists are eager to work with sportsmen, and more Louisiana sites have probably been found by amateurs than by professionals.

Louisiana is fortunate to have four regional archaeologists who are responsible for identifying and studying the state’s archaeological sites.

When called out to a site, archaeologists usually will fill out a site form to file with the state archaeology office. The form includes a sketch of the area, photographs, precise location on a topographic map and a general description of the types of artifacts found.

Sometimes, a sample of artifacts will be collected to help identify the site’s age and cultural affiliation. A test pit may be excavated, but today emphasis is more on recording than excavating. There are only a finite number of sites, and it is best to leave as many as possible for future archaeologists to study.

Once catalogued, the site is given an official code designation. Usually, however, each site also has a popular name. One of the cool benefits of finding and reporting a site is that you often can name it, or it might even be named in your honor.

If a significant mound complex or other site is found on private land, the landowner might want to consider donating the land to the Louisiana Archaeological Conservancy. This would ensure that the site will be protected, preserved for the future and properly studied. The landowner also can claim a substantial tax write-off for the donation.

In addition to the regional archaeologists, most local universities have archaeology, anthropology or history departments that would be interested in prehistoric sites. There is also the state government’s Louisiana Division of Archaeology and the Louisiana Archaeological Society (LAS). The latter is an organization for both professional archaeologists and interested laymen. With a $20 annual membership, the LAS publishes a highly informative newsletter and journal.

Every year at the end of September, the Division of Archaeology and the LAS also sponsor Archaeology Week. Activities are scheduled in numerous towns where you can learn more about the state’s archaeology and bring your artifacts for identification. Watch your local newspaper for this event, or contact the LAS.

In addition, there are several regional archaeological societies that welcome sportsmen as members. For the one in your area, contact your local regional archaeologist.

Dorian makes it clear that federal agencies like Kisatchie National Forest strongly support the public getting involved in archaeology.

“The one thing we do not want,” he says, “is to take on the appearance of Big Brother telling the public ‘don’t even think of entering federal land.’ We want the public to enjoy public land, but we also want to make sure that the study of our past is done in a legal, professional manner.”

Dorian points out that the National Forest Service has a program called “Passport in Time” where the public can volunteer to assist archaeologists on federal land.

“Over the past few years,” he notes, “approximately 75 people have participated in the program and actually helped excavate sites.”

If you are interested in volunteering for field work and want to get your hands dirty excavating a site, contact your regional archaeologist, the LAS or one of the regional societies.

Be forewarned, however. Real archaeology is not treasure hunting with Indiana Jones. It frequently is more like ditch-digging — hot and dirty work. Most archaeologists welcome interested volunteers and go out of their way to teach you about their profession. But they have little patience with people who bail out when things get difficult. If you volunteer, commit yourself to stay the day. Who knows? You might make the next great discovery about Louisiana’s first sportsmen.


To learn more about Louisiana archaeology, contact:

Louisiana Division of Archaeology, P.O. Box 44247, Baton Rouge, LA 70804, 225-342-8170, archaeology@crt.state.la.us

Louisiana Archaeological Society, Dr. Joe Saunders, Department of Geosciences, University of Louisiana at Monroe, Monroe, LA 71201, 318-342-1899, www.laarchaeology.org

Louisiana Archaeological Conservancy, P.O. Box 82002, Baton Rouge, LA 70884-2002, 225-342-8170 n


About Terry L. Jones 93 Articles
A native of Winn Parish, Terry L. Jones has enjoyed hunting and fishing North Louisiana’s woods and water for 50 years. He lives in West Monroe with his wife, Carol.

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