Projectile points made of quartzite, chert, and obsidian. Purchased in Tiwanaku, Bolivia, by Jeffrey Parsons, November 1966. UMMAA 58546. 

By Lauren Pratt

These eight tiny projectile points—nicknamed “bird points”—were obtained by Jeffery Parsons, then assistant professor of anthropology and curator of Latin American archaeology at the University of Michigan, at the site of Tiwanaku in Bolivia in November 1966. Having spent a few days visiting the site, Parsons was approached by a local boy who offered these points for sale at 15¢ apiece, having collected them from the surface of the site. (Read more about Parsons' travels and research in his new book, Remembering Archaeological Fieldwork in Mexico and Peru, 1961–2003).

Tiwanaku is located on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, in northern Bolivia. It was founded around 200 BCE, and from 500 CE to 1000 CE it was the capital city of a state that dominated a region covering what is today western Bolivia and parts of Peru and Chile (Janusek 2004).

Six of these points are made of quartzite, ranging in color from flat white to translucent gray, which would have been an everyday material for the people of Tiwanaku (Giesso 2000). One is a fine red chert; the last is obsidian, which would have been quarried from a source at least 200 km away from Tiwanaku, making it a relatively rare and valuable stone, which may have been controlled by the state (Glascock and Giesso 2012).

Although no comprehensive typology of regional projectile points was available in 1966, decades of subsequent research have produced a much clearer understanding of where and when different styles of stone tools were made and used. These points can be grouped into three types: a) long, narrow points with barbed shoulders and constricted (pointed) stems; b) a long, narrow point with horizontal shoulders and a straight base; and c) stemless points with dramatically concave bases. The Klink-Aldenderfer typology, developed for projectile points from the Lake Titicaca area, identifies the first group as “Type 4E.” These date to the Classic Tiwanaku period, at the height of the state’s strength (400–750 CE). The remaining two types don’t appear in the Kink-Aldenderfer typology, a reminder of the work that still needs to be done on the lithics of Ceramic Period Peru.

In terms of size, all eight points are unusually small. The largest measures only 2.4 cm in length, while the obsidian point, the smallest, is only 1.4 cm long. It is possible that they were used for hunting birds and other small game, as their nickname suggests. On the other hand, tiny, well-made pieces such as these have been interpreted as ceremonial and symbolic (Aldenderfer 1991; Flegenheimer, Weitzel, and Mazzia 2015). Which is the case here? Microscopic use-wear analysis revealed possible impact damage on the obsidian projectile point, while the other seven appeared undamaged. Without the context in which the artifacts were found, we may never know what the purpose of these miniature stone tools may have been.

Aldenderfer, Mark
 1991   Continuity and Change in Ceremonial Structures at Late Preceramic Asana, Southern Peru. Latin American Antiquity 2(3). JSTOR: 227–258.

Flegenheimer, Nora, Celeste Weitzel, and Natalia Mazzia
 2015   Miniature Points in an Exceptional Early South American Context. World Archaeology 47(1): 117–136.

Giesso, Martin
 2000   Stone Tool Production in the Tiwanaku Heartland: The Impact of State Emergence and Expansion on Local Households. Ph.D., The University of Chicago., accessed February 11, 2020.

Glascock, Michael D., and Martin Giesso
 2012   New Perspectives on Obsidian Procurement and Exchange at Tiwanaku, Bolivia. In Obsidian and Ancient Manufactured Glasses. Albuquerque, UNITED STATES: University of New Mexico Press., accessed February 11, 2020.

Janusek, John W.
 2004   Tiwanaku and Its Precursors: Recent Research and Emerging Perspectives. Journal of Archaeological Research 12(2): 121–183.