How Our Seafaring Ancestors Made Specialized Tools for Marine Hunting

Views of a chert crescent from San Miguel Island.Photo: University of Oregon

Back in the days of the Pleistocene era, our ancestors were not just hunting mammoths and other large game; evidence shows they were also feasting on fish and crustaceans. Researchers at the University of Oregon have found tools made specifically for hunting in or on water in the Channel Islands from approximately 12,000 years ago!

Crescent and stemmed point in a hand.Photo: University of Oregon

As you can see, some of the tools are tiny, and even though made of chert (a flint-like substance) would almost never have been used to hunt land game – except birds which the researchers believe the crescents were used for.

Study co-author Jon Erlandson said: “This is among the earliest evidence of seafaring and maritime adaptations in the Americas, and another extension of the diversity of Paleoindian economies… The points we are finding are extraordinary, the workmanship amazing. They are ultra thin, serrated and have incredible barbs on them. It’s a very sophisticated chipped-stone technology.”

Chert projectile points from CA-SMI-678 and CA-SMI-679. Center column, five eccentric crescents (top to bottom: SMI-679-39, -214, -67, -5, and -341). Left columns, Amol points (top to bottom, column 1: 678-58, 679-24, 679-256; column 2: 678-722, 679-28, 678-38). Right columns, CIB points (column 4, top to bottom: 679-255, 679-216, 679-300; column 5: 679-215, 678-101, 678-86). SMI- 678-722 was found in situ within shell midden stratum dated to ~12,240 to 11,750 cal BP.Photo: J. Erlandson

Researchers found diverse bones of sea mammals, fish and sea birds, including an extinct duck, which shows the people of the time had sophisticated tools refined specifically for maritime style hunting and fishing. Incredible to think these were all made by hand with stone.

Paleocoastal artifacts from CA-SRI-512W. Channel Island barbed (CIB) points at left and three crescents in center column are from slope below eroding A6 paleosol; sawn red ochre (lower center), abraded bone tool fragments (upper right), projectile points, and crescents at right were found in situ in test units.Photo: J. Erlandson

An additional point that this discovery brings to light is that the islanders must have had some ability to build watercraft and navigate, as the Channel Islands were well off the coast at that time in history.