The Ancient Native American Blowgun in the Southeast
Tracy C. Brown
Archaeology in Tennessee Blog
The children of Middle Tennessee were introduced to the blowgun during the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, the source of their education was entertainment television. Local network affiliates in Nashville presented Saturday afternoon showings of Tarzan movies, often featuring Johnny Weissmuller in the title role. In these old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, indigenous African warriors sometimes used blowguns against their enemies, usually pith-helmeted big game hunters from London. These blowguns were hollow, cylindrical, wooden tubes with diameters like that of a Roosevelt dime and with lengths similar to that of a good-sized milkshake straw. The blowgun ammunition consisted of tiny darts tipped with fast-acting poison. For thousands of us Middle Tennessee kids, this became our mental template for all blowguns, and this template was further reinforced by their similarity to the beloved pea-shooter toys available to us in local five-and-dime stores such as Kuhn’s Variety Store.
Dr. Prentice M. Thomas, Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Anthropology at The University of Tennessee (UTK) in Knoxville, Tennessee, shattered my childhood blowgun template. Dr. Thomas was trained in Mesoamerican archaeology at Tulane University, but he was sometimes tasked with teaching an archaeology or cultural anthropology course focused on the southeastern United States. In a course entitled Indians of the Southeastern United States, Dr. Thomas informed us that the blowgun was also an ancient Native American weapon used in the Southeast and that it was still in use during the historic era. The Native American tribes that used it included the Choctaw in Mississippi, Chitimacha in Louisiana, Catawba in South Carolina, and Cherokee in North Carolina, North Georgia, and East Tennessee. However, this blowgun was very different from my mental template for such weapons.
The textbook for my course was the first edition of The Southeastern Indians by the late Dr. Charles Hudson, who was a distinguished cultural anthropologist at the University of Georgia. Based on information provided by Speck (1938:198-204), Hudson (1976:273) described the southeastern blowgun as follows:
“Boys and young men used blowguns to kill squirrels and birds and other small game. The blowgun was made of a hollowed piece of cane cut to a length of seven to nine feet. The darts they used were about 10 to 22 inches long and were round in cross section. They were made of hard wood and had several inches of thistledown or animal hair tied to one end to form an air seal in the blowgun. The Cherokees were accurate with the blowgun up to 40 or 60 feet. Their darts had sufficient velocity to penetrate the bodies of birds, but with larger game they shot for the eyes, and reportedly with good success. We have no evidence that they used any kind of poison on these darts.”
The raw material used to make these long blowguns was the tall river cane (Arundinaria gigantea) that grew along rivers and large second order streams in the southeast. During ancient times, the fletching on the tail ends of the blowgun darts was fluffy hair from the eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) or tail fur from the eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger). Scottish thistle (Cirsium vulgare) was not available to Native Americans for dart fletching until the historic era when European immigrants introduced it to North America.
The Cherokee Heritage Center’s Danny McCarter shows us how to make a Cherokee river cane blowgun.
As a UTK archaeology student, I was totally sold on the atlatl and bow and arrow as highly efficient and deadly Native American weapons. The blowgun still aroused a bit of negative suspicion in my mind until one fateful day in the middle 1970s. It was about 2:00 p.m. on a weekday, and several of us students were processing prehistoric artifacts in the Normandy Archaeology Laboratory. Suddenly, three jovial graduate students entered with a homemade southeastern blowgun. Lacking natural materials such as river cane and ironwood splinters, they had fashioned a classic Native American blowgun and dart from more readily available materials. The long blowgun barrel appeared to be made of metal (electrical conduit pipe), and it had been fitted with a carved wooden mouthpiece. A dart had been fashioned by filing down a long nail or gutter spike and applying fletching.
Everyone in the laboratory was amazed at this makeshift bit of experimental archaeology, which was obviously based on some deep research into Native American blowguns. Then a laboratory worker asked the most salient question: “Does it work?” I doubted it because the sharpened metal dart looked way too heavy to be propelled by a puff of breath from a person’s mouth. Everyone in the room spread out as a graduate student dropped his metal dart into the blowgun, backed up against a wall, took a deep breath, and fired the dart. It left the muzzle with such high velocity that it could barely be seen during its short flight, and it imbedded with a loud “thud” into the plywood panel of a closet door. I rushed over to closely examine the embedded dart. My eyes crossed in amazement! It had penetrated nearly all the way through the 0.25-inch plywood panel. Clearly, a lighter wooden dart would have traveled much farther and with greater velocity. From that moment forward, I realized that the ancient Native American blowgun of the southeast was a powerful, very dangerous, and highly efficient weapon.
The old Normandy Archaeology Laboratory in South Stadium Hall at UTK is the same room as the current Historical Archaeology Laboratory established by Dr. Charles Faulkner and now operated by Dr. Barbara Heath. If you ever drop by her laboratory, you might examine the center portions of the top plywood panels in the closet doors. The small hole left by the experimental blowgun dart may still be there after all these years.