Before Europeans arrived to Eastern North America, prehistoric, indigenous peoples experienced a number of changes that culminated in the development of sedentary, maize agricultural lifeways of varying complexity. Inherent to these lifeways were several triggers of social stress including population nucleation and increase, intergroup conflict (warfare), and increased territoriality. Here, we examine whether this period of social stress co-varied with deadlier weaponry, specifically, the design of the most commonly found prehistoric archery component in late pre-contact North America: triangular stone arrow tips (TSAT). The examination of modern metal or carbon projectiles, arrows, and arrowheads has demonstrated that smaller arrow tips penetrate deeper into a target than do larger ones. We first experimentally confirm that this relationship applies to arrow tips made from stone hafted onto shafts made from wood. We then statistically assess a large sample (n = 742) of late pre-contact TSAT and show that these specimens are extraordinarily small. Thus, by miniaturizing their arrow tips, prehistoric people in Eastern North America optimized their projectile weaponry for maximum penetration and killing power in warfare and hunting. Finally, we verify that these functional advantages were selected across environmental and cultural boundaries. Thus, while we cannot and should not rule out stochastic, production economizing, or non-adaptive cultural processes as an explanation for TSAT, overall our results are consistent with the hypothesis that broad, socially stressful demographic changes in late pre-contact Eastern North America resulted in the miniaturization–and augmented lethality–of stone tools across the region.
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