Central States Archaeological Societies
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Hoof Pestles: Art Form or Just a Convenient Reference?

by Merrill Kuske

Central States Archaeological Societies 2014 July Journal

St. Louis, Missouri


I first came across the concept of a hoof pestle in a Lar Hothem artifact guidebook. Further research though, did not produce a substantial universal reference to an object known as a hoof pestle. Occasionally, internet auctions would reference a hoof shaped pestle, and once I found a reference to a hoof shaped pestle found in a cave in Israel. From what I can tell they appear in the Midwest in general; Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Missouri. They are associated with the Archaic age according these guidebooks, but they don’t seem to be associated with any chronology or certain people.

Generally, a hoof pestle is modeled on some form of a hoof motif. The idea of a hoof shaped pestle can be subjective to some degree, but authenticating hoof pestles need not be completely subjective. Attributes to consider are: use wear consistent with grinding on the base area, adhesive use wear consistent with constant interaction of human hands and oils with the stone, and nicks and chips in the pestle for finger placement. The motif follows the similar pattern seen in Figure 1 and in the guidebooks.

If you pick up a hoof pestle and rotate it, you will find a position fitting snugly between the thumb and first two fingers. The curved part of the pestle will go back toward the curve in the palm, and there may be little indentations in the rock where fingers fit. These At top: Figure 1. – A collection of hoof pestles Above: Figure 2. - Common components of hoof pestles are either through use or through the user making small chips or nicks in the rock or both. Intuitive feeling will usually allow the interpreter to feel a complete fit.

After studying 26 hoof pestles from Missouri, I can reveal a few facts: they are commonly made of andesite, granite, quartz, flint or basaltic andesite; their average length is 2.5 inches, maximum length is 4.5 inches, and minimum is 1.97 inches. The average base grinding area is 4.75 (around) inches measured by clay impression. Average weight is 7.6 ounces with maximum being 20.7 and minimum being 2.9 ounces. Approximately 57% have a pocket the size of a small nut or corn kernel on the grinding surface.

Components of hoof pestles, as shown in Figure 2, are small metates and anvils that could generally be carried anywhere and were mobile. It is generally easier to find hoof pestles than metates because metates were often turned over, and it would take time to wear a depression on the surface. It is obviously easier to identify a pestle than an unworn metate.

At top: Figure 1. – A collection of hoof pestles Above: Figure 2. - Common components of hoof pestles

Hoofs were used in a couple of unique ways in ancient America: (From Catlin:33), “Many of them also ride with a lance of twelve or fourteen feet in length, with a blade of polished steel; and all of them, (as a protection for their vital parts), with a shield or arrow fender made of the skin of the buffalo neck, which has been smoked, and hardened with glue extracted from the hoofs.” “The feet of the animals (buffalo) are boiled with their hoofs, for the glue they contain, for fastening arrow points and many other uses.” (Catlin: 262). Perhaps the pestles were symbolic of the shield and the glue that held the tribe together.

General conclusions: the range in size of pestles is indicative of the range in size of hands. I believe that there was wide scale use of children, teens, young ladies and older ladies in the production of foodstuffs, nut processing, and grinding. Portability is suggested in the size of most pestles and platforms. The abundance of hammerstones nearby may suggest nut cracking. This idea is congruent with the end of the last glacial age, the encroachment of deciduous forests, and beginning of the Archaic period in which large scale nut processing probably began.

Why didn’t the hoof pestle survive? The rolling pin has survived for centuries: roller pestle to rolling pin, but not the hoof pestle. The cup stone, the axe and grinding stone all have their modern day equivalent. We do not have a metate anymore but we do have a cutting board. We don’t have a mano anymore but we do have meat tenderizers. Somewhere in a factory we now prepare grains on a much more sophisticated level.

Did the hoof pestle disappear with the people that created them or did they find something better? To me, it seems logical that over time they developed pestles that were larger so they could use their upper arms more, and they also wandered less as subsistence farming took root.

Hothem, Lar
2000 Indian Artifacts of the Midwest, Book V, Collector Books
Catlin, George
1844 Letters and Notes on the Mannes, Customs, and Conditions of North American
Indians, Volume I, Dover Publications(1973 reprint)