View Full Version : Preference for right-handedness goes back to prehistoric era

Sunday, November 28th, 2004, 10:22 PM
Preference for right-handedness goes back to prehistoric era

Research by a University of Indianapolis Arctic archeologist suggests that the preference for right-handed archers to left-handed ones in prehistoric northern Alaska was nine-to-one, almost identical to the current hand preference ratio in North America.

Gregory A. Reinhardt, who is also a professor of anthropology and chair of social sciences at U of I, said arrowheads collected during an archeological dig indicate that an overwhelming number were crafted to be shot by right-handed archers. The excavations were done at Pingasugruk on Alaska’s northern coastline, and concentrated in an abandoned Inupiat village. Reinhardt and his colleagues believe the Inupiat people occupied the area for several centuries before leaving it prior to 1800.

“The arrowheads are carved from caribou antlers, and after I had studied quite of few of them I began to notice a pattern in the way they were carved,” he said. “The majority of them had been shaped so the cortical or smooth side of the antler would be placed against the bow in such a way that it would give the shooter a cleaner view in aiming toward the target.”

Reinhardt explained that determining the difference between right- and left-handed arrowheads requires an understanding of how they were made and used.

“The arrowheads are long sharp-tipped weapons, which were fitted into the ends of hand-carved wooden arrow shafts made for hunting caribou,” he said. “They are usually four to five inches in length with one to three barbs that appear on one edge only, making the barbs asymmetrical. When held so the point is up and the base, or tang, is down, the barbs make these arrowheads a little lop-sided. Near the tips, the arrowheads also have a slightly flat ‘front’ and ‘back.’ The ‘front’ is the side showing the smoother uniformly colored outer surface, or cortex, part of the antler. The ‘back’ is the antler’s rougher, spongy interior.”

John Murdoch’s 19th-century report “Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition” about Inupiat archery states that antler arrowheads were positioned so the lop-sided barbs hung down when arrows were shot. Reinhardt believes that with the barbs down, an arrowhead’s “width” would be top-to-bottom rather than side-to-side, improving the chances of hitting a caribou between its vertical ribs. If these arrows were shot with their barbs in any other position, the barbs’ weight would cause the arrows to rotate in flight, making ribcage shots more difficult.

That explains the barb asymmetry, but what about the 9 to 1 ratio?

“I believe that right-handed archers would look down the length of the arrow to aim at a target and see the smooth side. The one with no distracting discolorations,” he said. “This is because right-handers probably shot with the arrow near their right cheek, so a right-handed archer would sight along the smooth side of a left-barbed arrowhead. Left-handers would shoot in the opposite manner, preferring to sight down to a right-barbed arrow.”

Reinhardt said he did not notice this difference until he began to categorize and document the arrowheads.

“As I looked at the Pingasugruk arrowheads and began to separate them by these patterns, it dawned on me that most of them appeared to be sculpted for right-handed archers,” he said. “The ratio was about 28 to 3, and that is about the same proportion of right-handed versus left-handed people today.”

Reinhardt took his initial findings and decided to do more research on the extensive Inupiat artifact collections that are preserved in Indiana before reaching any conclusions.

“Hoosier medical missionaries Dr. Henry Greist and his wife, Mollie, assembled more than 3,000 Inupiat artifacts from the Barrow, Alaska area, where they lived in the 1920s and 1930s, and brought them back to Indiana,” he said. “Those items now belong to the William Hammond Mathers Museum at Indiana University and to The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.”

Reinhardt studied more than 300 arrowheads at these museums, which were carved from caribou antlers from the same era and location.

“There were 201 arrowheads intact enough for me to tell which sides the barbs were on, so I recorded various observations – barb side and number, tang shape, and so on. After this data was entered into a computer, the ratio came out 180 to 21, almost perfectly nine to one – the same ratio as the ones excavated from Pingasugruk,” he said. “I thought this was fascinating.”

Reinhardt says he has no idea why humans are right- or left-handed dominant, but theorizes it has to do with human biological evolution. “Prehistoric Inupiat people specifically did not encourage their children into right-handedness,” he said. “The right-to-left percentages show that ‘lefties’ were obviously tolerated. This is consistent with the permissiveness toward children recorded historically among many groups of Eskimos.”

Stephen Nawrocki, an associate professor of biology and director of osteology for the U of I Archeology and Forensics Laboratory, said he was not surprised by Reinhardt’s conclusions.

“Right-handed dominance goes back more than a million years, and there are several theories about the dominance of right-handed people. One popular theory is that preference is a byproduct of complex language development,” he said. “The left side of the brain dominates language and it also controls the right side of the body. There is a belief that during brain evolution, a ‘field effect’ took place in which the development of language encouraged right-handedness.”

John Langdon, a neuroscience professor and chair of the biology department at U of I, agreed with Nawrocki. “Tools made more than a million and a half years ago indicate a right-handed dominance, and nobody knows exactly why there is this preference,” he said. “A lot of work has been done on other primates, and there is no evidence that these other primates have a preference for one hand or the other – the preference for right-handedness is uniquely human.”

Langdon said it has been assumed that the preference comes from the asymmetrical use of the brain.

“There are really two questions on this: Why is the brain asymmetrical? If this is so, then why are there left-handed people?” he said. “Until we do more research on the brain we won’t understand why there is a right-handed dominance in humans.”

Reinhardt does not know what he will do with these findings.

“I realize this is not an earth-shattering discovery, but it’s nonetheless intriguing,” Reinhardt said. “I don’t think anyone’s noticed this particular detail before, and there are not too many cases of hand preference being reported for prehistoric artifacts, particularly among weapons as opposed to tools. It takes a fairly large sample of objects, like these arrowheads, in order to make claims with statistical certainty. I might be wrong about how the Inupiat used their arrowheads, but I’m pretty sure they were carved for right- and left-handers.”

Additional contact:
Greg Reinhardt, (317) 788-3440, reinhardt@uindy.edu
Stephen Nawrocki, (317) 788-3486, snawrocki@uindy.edu
John Langdon, (317) 788-3447, langdon@uindy.edu

Writer: Cynthia Sequin