On Friday, July 2nd, a ceremony was held along River Road in Smithfield Township, Monroe County. The purpose was to celebrate a new Pennsylvania state historical marker. The marker was dedicated to the Shawnee Minisink archaeological site (36Mr43). The site has had a major impact on our understanding of past cultural behavior at both the national and international level. However, the marker ceremony is also about the archaeologists who worked at the site and just as importantly, about the local government who is preserving the site.
Don Kline, avocational archaeologist, discovered the site in 1972 and Dr. Charles McNett of American University excavated the site between 1974 and 1977. During that period, over 3900 square feet was excavated to a depth averaging eight feet, producing over 55,000 artifacts. Other than the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, it has yielded the earliest carbon 14 dates for human occupation in the Commonwealth and some of the earliest in the eastern United States. The site is stratified and encapsulates nearly 11,000 years of Pennsylvania prehistory. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
The ceremony was very well attended with between 50 and 75 people at the site. Brian Barrett, Smithfield Township Manager, Joe Gingrich, graduate student at the University of Wyoming, R. Michael Stewart, Temple University professor and Kurt W. Carr, State Museum archaeologist, gave brief presentations. About 50 people returned for lunch at the township building where they were given PowerPoint presentations on the significance of the site. Smithfield Township did a great job in organizing the event and they seemed very pleased with the turnout. At least one TV station filmed the event. Historic marker dedication ceremonies vary greatly in their content but this was one of the best. These events really do get people excited about their heritage.
Shawnee Minisink has made several important contributions to our understanding of past cultural behavior. It contains significant Woodland and Archaic period deposits. However, it is most notable for its contributions to Paleoindian studies and these will be emphasized below. The Paleoindian living floors are defined stratigraphically and by two Clovis fluted points and several carbon 14 dates. The site is very well stratified and the Paleoindian levels are separated from the Early Archaic occupation by a thick layer of flood deposits that prevents the mixing of artifacts between these two time periods. These artifacts have not moved since they were originally dropped nearly 11, 000 years ago. Several clusters of flakes have been identified that seem to represent where one individual sat and made or re-sharpened stone tools at the end of the last Ice Age.
The site is also significant because it was one of the first Paleoindian sites in the East to yield features. The charred remains from these features produced surprising data on the Paleoindian diet and the Late Pleistocene environment. Paleoindians have frequently been portrayed as “big game hunters”, killing mammoths, mastodons and extinct forms of bison. However, the charred hawthorn seeds, hickory nuts and fish bones found in the Shawnee Minisink hearths support the argument that Paleoindians in the East were generalized foragers rather than specialized hunters.
The early environment of northern Pennsylvania has been characterized as a cold, spruce dominated open forest. However, the presence of charred hickory nuts and charcoal from other deciduous trees in the hearths suggests that the vegetation was a combination of coniferous and deciduous species integrated into a mosaic pattern not found in the world today. The data from Shawnee Minisink has made a significant contribution to revising our environmental reconstruction for the region.
In 2003, Don Kline and Joe Gingrich returned to the site and worked there for six more seasons. Several hundred square feet were excavated, and thousands of Paleoindian artifacts were recovered. Some of the more exciting specimens consist of over 150 endscrapers and a second Clovis fluted point. Two additional hearths were uncovered and the charcoal produced dates of between 10,900 and 11,000 years ago (radiocarbon years). These are the earliest dates for Clovis fluted points in the East and have significant implications for the peopling of the New World. The traditional model of interpretation is called “Clovis First” and it has humans entering the New World at about 12,000 years ago, inventing fluted points in the western United States and quickly occupying the Americas by 10,500 years ago. The early dates from the Shawnee Minisink site demonstrate that fluting appears in the East at a very early time and, along with data from sites in Florida strongly supports the hypothesis that fluting was invented in the southeastern United States and that humans were in the New World thousands of years prior to fluted points.
The historical marker program, which had it beginnings in 1914 (with the Historical Commission), is now one of the most popular and most innovative programs of the Historical and Museum Commission. Over 2000 dot the state and each establishes an important link to the past. It is hoped that this marker will not be the end of the story but will instead, provide encouragement for further study and discussion at the Shawnee Minisink site.The Shawnee Minisink site is significant both nationally and internationally. It has contributed to a major shift in our interpretation of the Paleoindian diet, Late Pleistocene environment and the peopling of the New World. The archaeological community owes a debt of gratitude to Smithfield Township for commemorating the significance of this site and contributing to its preservation. Many archaeologists have been part of this research but it all began with the persistence of Don Kline and his discovery 38 years ago.