P. E. I. Palaeo Indian Flake Tools and their Materials

The people who settled the Island 12,000 or so years ago brought with them a lithic or stone technology that far surpassed the core tool techniques that I illustrated in the previous post. True, the newcomers would have used all the kinds of core tools I described – and more even – in their lives as hunters and gatherers, but they brought with them a technique of converting special kinds of stone into spectacular blades such as we have observed in France and Spain, Clovis, New Mexico, and Debert in Nova Scotia.

These blades are thin, with flakes knocked off to produce a lenticular (lens shaped) cross section and they have a lanceolate (lance-shape) or bay leaf profile. Such blades are referred to as bifaces. In North America the bases are generally slightly or very concave, and when a channel is flaked off the base to run to 1/2 to 1/3 the length of the blade these are called flutes and the process fluting. The flutes are required so that the blade can be hafted to a spear shaft or knife handle. The sharp edges of the blade at its base are ground so that they will not cut the thongs that tie the blade to the haft (Photo from The Nature of Things: The Ice Age).

These tools are called flake blades because, instead of sculpting a single point out of a cobble, a large piece of flint, or a material that will break in similar fashion, is used to obtain many blades from a single core.

This ability of silica-based stones to fracture in this manner is called the Herzian cone phenomenon. It is a cone of force that spreads through a glass-like substance when struck so that a piece flakes off in a predictable manner. Thus, a long blade will break off a stone core and flakes will break off the separated blades to shape the artefact. This produces a conchoidal fracture which I discussed in the previous post and accounts for the appearance of the finished blade. This fracture is the result of the Herzian cone phenomenon and you can literally see the patterns caused as the waves of force spread through the stone.

The Herzian cone is named after the German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, who was the first to describe this type of energy pushed through various kinds of materials with predictable consequences. These Palaeolithic hunters were the first humans to use this principle which is now vital to modern technology from nuclear explosions to fracking. (I append this glossary of instances where this cone of energy is found in our modern world.)




Blades made from flakes struck off cores date from the Upper Palaeolithic, or last phase of the Old Stone Age. This is roughly 50,000 to 10,000 years ago. This is about the time Humans emerged from Africa and began their interactions with the Neanderthals. It also coincides with a sharp increase in the types of stone tools and weapons produced, some quite specialised, as for fishing, for example. This period also saw in Europe and Africa the birth of what we now call art, in the form of carvings on stone, bone and antler and paintings on the walls of caves.

The material almost universally used for piercing and cutting tools and weapons was flint, a stone whose origins are not clear. It is said to occur when chemical changes take place in compressed sedimentary rock formations. It appears as nodules or masses, in some places quite large, in chalk deposits. The irregular shape of the nodules is accounted for by gelatinous materials filling in cavities in the sediment left by the activities of sea life such as crustaceans or mollusks. Silica rich sponges or other sea life could seep into these cavities and in time solidify into flint. Microscopic examination of thin slices of the material sometime reveal the presence of microcrustaceans and other foreign material. Ancient flint mines have been discovered in Britain and this drawing by British Heritage gives an idea of what they might have been like.




The first people to arrive in the region of the Maritimes and New England employed a fully developed blade toolbox, whether they came from the region of New Mexico or whether they were Solutrean hunter/gatherer/fishermen from France and Spain. If they approached from the American West they would probably have had few flint implements because of its relative rarity in North America, but the toolbox would have been rich in specimens of chert, quartz, felsites, jasper, rhyolite and banded rhyolite, chalcedony, argillite, very fine grained mudstone and even quartzite! Chert, in its various manifestations, seems to be the most common material used in North America.



In 2008 a group of archaeologists, James W Bradley, Arthur E. Spiess, Richard A. Boisvert and Jeff Boudreau, published a most interesting article about all the known Palaeo Indian artefacts found in the Maritime and New England region, up into Quebec. It has a long title, What’s the Point?: Modal Forms and Attributes of Paleoindian Bifaces in the New England-Maritimes Region and in spite of its scholarly focus, is largely intelligible to the interested reader. In their foreword the authors have this to say:

The purpose of this paper is to propose a set of definitions for the Paleoindian bifaces currently known within the New England- Maritimes Region. This approach has grown from an impressionistic sense that projectile points changed in a patterned manner across the region over time, to a series of initial efforts to define key attributes and test their potential for seriation (Bradley 1998; Spiess et al. 1998). While our most recent attempt has been tested against regional environmental and radiocarbon records with some success (Newby et al. 2005), the results also pointed out the need for a more rigorous set of definitions. The objective is not to present a final or complete set of definitions for Paleoindian bifaces. It is to provide a clearly defined set of working terms to facilitate comparisons and test hypotheses. If these categories are refined, or even re-defined, as a result of further investigation, then this exercise in terminology will have been worthy.

Bradley et al – What’s the Point 2008

The authors very carefully set out their criteria for examining and recording the characteristics of the lanceolate blades associated with the Palaeo Indians.

As with standards used by other scholars they are concerned with length, the width at the middle, the width of the base, the depth of the indentation of the base and the angle from the vertical from which the side at its widest departs. They are also concerned with the dimensions of the lenticular cross section, and the length of the flute (if present) from the base – usually 1/2 to 1/3.

The way in which the material has been flaked off the core blade is also of the greatest interest, is subject to regional variation, and requires a very deep knowledge of lithic technology to understand.

The authors focus in detail on how these blades were hafted to spears or knife handles, and point out frequently that the bottom third or so of the blade has its sides ground flat so as not to cut the thongs that lash the haft and blade into a stable unit.


The authors also make a vital point that helps us interpret the majority of Palaeo points found on Prince Edward Island, and that is, as David Keenlyside observed years ago, our artefacts for the most part may be long blades reused to the point where they became not very useful stubs of the originals, and were probably in the end discarded.

The authors of this article also include a chronology of the region which I include here. At the beginning of the article they disassociate themselves from the Clovis tradition and treat the material found at the sites listed in the chronology as a completely separate entity. They remark on two things that are of interest to us, that is, the Debert material is possibly older than other artefacts as one moves west across the region, and its chief lithic material – chalcedony – is unique. They also indicate that as the lithic finds move away from the coast, the quality of their technique diminishes. What does that say to you?



There is no doubt that Palaeo Indians lived in various places on the Island and left evidence of two kinds to prove that. First, there are the points themselves and secondly, the thousands of discarded flakes produced in the manufacturing process. These flakes have been found, like the points, eroded out of the bank on the edge of the water, and embedded in a few original camp floor/hearth areas where the work was done. I immediately think of MacPhee’s Shore at Savage Harbour and the Midgell site I often mention. Both sites are gone, the first by extensive construction, the other by the advance of the sea.

To date no lanceolated blades have been found intact although broken points from various Island sites might suggest that, like this broken tip from Midgell, they came off long blades. However I don’t know whether broken bases have been found as I am not familiar with the Provincial collection and material in the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa.

That long thin blades produced on the Island in the same lithic material as the Palaeo remnants is not in doubt. This blade from Midgell, dated to some time in the Archaic period that followed the Palaeo period, is just over 140 mm long and thus at the high end of blade lengths mentioned in Bradley et al.

From this sort of later evidence I assume that such blades were produced, probably in significant numbers by these early people. This blade with thinning at the base, and presumably contemporary to the stemmed blade above, also from Midgell, is 105 mm in length, also at the high end of the Bradley et al. measurements.



In an earlier post I included this photo of the extremely important Sorensen point found in a potato field near Tryon in the 1930s. It is the only undoubted fluted Palaeo point ever found on the Island. No evidence at all of a related archaeological site has been found in that area.

As you can see it is fluted and about 70 mm in length, about half the size of the large Midgell blade. It is said to be made from chalcedony, possibly from the same deposits from which the Debert Palaeo blades were made. This material makes the point even more unique as, to my knowledge, it is the only Palaeo chalcedony point ever found on the Island.

Nearly all the associated Palaeo material found here is black banded rhyolite (if that is what it is) from a quarry on Ingonish Island off Cape Breton (if that is indeed where it comes from). One must point out that in the 1980s this stone was called andesite for a while, then some other geologist suggested it might be siliceous shale, so that is what it was called in the 1990s. Now it is rhyolite. It is a lovely material, whatever it is, full of enigma, and always worked at an angle to its grain.

It is critical to understand that when the first Palaeo Indians set foot on this Island (unless they arrived when it was still attached to the Mainland), there were no lithic resources – chert, rhyolite, whatever – to be found. There were only quartzite cobbles and large igneous boulders. The lithic material for their tools would have to be imported!

And that is just what they did. Who knows how they discovered that the Ingonish Island rhyolite, if that is what it is, was available in large quantities. A former Parks Canada archaeologist, my friend Rob Ferguson, visited the quarry site on Ingonish Island and saw what are believed to be ancient workings in the face of the rock. Perhaps those who came to the Island knew there was nothing that could be turned into blades available here and so brought large supplies of cores with them.

Or perhaps the stone was obtained through a trading network. Archaeological literature is full of accounts where stone was worked on a site many hundreds of kilometers from the place where it was mined. This suggests that this was obtained through trade. If that is the case, what trade goods were passed back and forth in this early commercial activity? The possibilities are astounding.

Whatever the case may be, the quite literal tail ends of Palaeo Indian occupancy on the Island have been found in significant numbers, such as these worn-down points found at the Jones Site at Greenwich and those found at Savage Harbour (above).

Without being able to study them, one might assume that the first, second and fourth points are the Ingonish rhyolite while the third may be a chert, also imported from Nova Scotia, but from the Minas Basin in the Bay of Fundy, where there are rich chert deposits, along with similar other stones with different names. One keeps reading that “chert” is one of the vaguest appellations imaginable for a stone that others may consider to be something else entirely. This link will explain some of the confusion regarding the connection between chert and chalcedony.


A burning question still to be answered is the relationship between this Debert blade and this rhyolite barbed point I found at Greenwich. (Photo: Museum of Civilisation from the internet.)

They share some characteristics but not the fluted base of the Debert point, although the concavity is similar. Does the lack of fluting suggest that a new way of hafting these points at the end of the Palaeo Indian period is represented by this thick base on the Greenwich point?

There are so many things we don’t know about the end of the Palaeo Indian period. Where did these people go? Did they in time become the Archaic people? Did the warming period that followed the last glaciation cause the game they had hunted to retreat or become extinct? Does this account for the disappearance of the fluted point? Did the Archaic people continue using the black rhyolite used extensively by the Palaeo Indians? It seems so, for a while at least. So how do we make a connection? Over thousands of years people came and went and new ways replaced old ways, but the constant component in this story is that the source of suitable stone for tools and weapons seems always to have remained the same.

One of the sad aspects of my life, as I look back in my old age, is that I never visited the Minas Basin chert and chalcedony deposits, nor the banded rhyolite site on Ingonish Island, to look at the rock formations in situ and collect various specimens in order to study, feel and contemplate them in this time of reflection. I would have liked to become familiar will all the kinds of lithic materials used in making stone tools in Nova Scotia.  Intimacy with such rocks in their original context would help bring a glimmer of understanding, even excitement, when studying stone tools found locally, and while thinking about the beginnings and progressions of the human presence, thousands of years earlier on the Island during the Palaeo period.



From time to time I have used photographs that I took 35 years ago of lithic material found by Rolley Jones and which has now happily found its way into the provincial collection. I wish to give credit and thanks to the Prince Edward Island Museum as I post this material in this format.



Anderson, T. W., “Holocene vegetation and climatic history of Prince Edward Island, Canada, Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 1980, 17(9): 1152-1165.

Anderson – Holocene Vegetation and Climatic History of PEI – 1980

Bradley, James W., Arthur E. Spiess, Richard A. Boisvert and Jeff Boudreau, What’s the Point?: Modal Forms and Attributes of Paleoindian Bifaces in the New England-Maritimes Region, Archaeology of Eastern North America, Vol. 36, pp. 119-172, 2008.

Bradley et al – What’s the Point 2008

Hodges, Henry, Artifacts: An Introduction to Early Materials and Technology, Humanities Press, New Jersey and John Baker, London, 1981.

Koppel, Tom, “The Peopling of North America,” Canadian Geographic, September/October 1992, pp. 54-65.

Kranck, Kate, “Geomorphological Development and Post-Pleistocene Sea Level Changes, Northumberland Strait, Maritime Provinces,” Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 9, pp. 835-844, 1972.

MacDonald, George F., Debert: A Palaeo-Indian Site in Central Nova Scotia, National Museum of Man, Anthropological Papers 16, Ottawa. 1968.

MacDonald, George F., “Eastern North America,” Early Man in the New World, edited by Richard Shutler, Jr., Sage Publications, Beverley Hills, California, pp. 97-108, 1983.

McGhee, Robert, Ancient Canada, Canadian Museum of Civilisation, Libre Expression, 1989.

Pearson, Richard J., “Some Recent Archaeological Discoveries from Prince Edward Island,” Anthropologica, Vol. 8, No. 1, Canadian Anthropology Society, pp. 101-109, 1966.

Stanford, Dennis J. & Bruce Bradley, Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2012.

Tuck, James A., “Prehistoric Archaeology in Atlantic Canada Since 1975,” Canadian Journal of Archaeology, No. 6, 1982.

Tuck, James A., Maritime Provinces Prehistory, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1995

Turnbull, Christopher J and Davis, Stephen A., An Archaeological Bibliography of the Maritime Provinces: Works to 1984, The Council of Maritime Premiers, Maritime Committee for Archaeological Coöperation – Reports in Archaeology 6, Fredericton, 1986.











Microcrystalline Quartz – Flint, Chert, Jasper