Friday, December 9, 2011

Paleoindian Diet

During this holiday season, many of us will eat too much but promise ourselves that we will diet as soon as the feasting is over. As if to acknowledge this schizophrenic behavior, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has chosen Pennsylvania Foodways as its theme for 2012. The first major presentation of this theme will be at the Pennsylvania Farm Show from 1/7/12 – 1/14/12. The goal of the PHMC is to celebrate and commemorate the history of agriculture and the famous foods (the oldest brewery and the most snack foods) of the Commonwealth. In keeping with this theme, our blog until the end of the Farm Show, will cover the evolution of subsistence patterns in Pennsylvania or people’s diet over the past 16,000 years. We will begin with Native American subsistence patterns and end with subsistence patterns of the colonial period. This week, we begin with the Paleoindian period.

The Paleoindian period dates between 16,000 and 10,000 years ago. It generally corresponds to the end of the Ice Age. The land that eventually became Pennsylvania was not the lush forest Native Americans enjoyed at the time of European contact. Instead it was an open spruce forest with only a few broad leafed trees such as oaks along the major streams and rivers. This environment did not contain nearly the food resources that were available to Native Americans during later time periods.

A major problem with determining the Paleoindian diet is the very poor preservation of organic remains such as animal bones or plant parts in the eastern United States. Unless they are partially burned, these are hardly ever preserved in the archaeological record. Much of the early speculation on the diet of Paleoindians was based on archaeology conducted in the western United States. Based on archaeological sites excavated in the west that contained the remains of mammoth, mastodon and extinct bison, archaeologists believed for a long time that Paleoindians in Pennsylvania were highly mobile, big-game hunters. In Florida, there is a growing body of data indicating mammoth steaks were part of the Paleoindian subsistence pattern. It was assumed that Paleoindians also hunted a variety of smaller animals and ate a wide variety of plant foods, but a significant part of their diet was based on now extinct Ice Age animals. However, in the Northeast, there is no association of extinct animals with Paleoindian artifacts. In fact, the East (north of Florida) does not contain much data to address the issue of diet. Therefore, answering the question of what Paleoindians ate has been a major obstacle to understanding their adaptation.

The Shoop site (36Da20) was one of the first Paleoindian sites reported in the East and it seemed to support the “big game hunting” hypothesis. This site is located in upper Dauphin County, nine miles east of the Susquehanna River. It is the largest Paleoindian site in Pennsylvania and one of the largest in the eastern United States. It was first analyzed by John Witthoft, in 1952, who was then Pennsylvania’s State Archaeologist. The site has produced over one thousand tools, including hundreds of scrapers (probably used to clean animal hides) and approximately ninety fluted spear points.

Shoop Site (36Da20) fluted projectile points

The stone used to make 98% of these tools is Onondaga chert and its nearest source is western New York, 250 miles to the north. There are at least eleven concentrations of artifacts at the Shoop site. One theory is that each concentration represents a separate visit between western New York and central Pennsylvania. No food remains have been found, but it is hard to attribute the high numbers of spear points and possible hide scraping tools on a ridge top setting to anything other than hunting. Archaeologists have long speculated that this site was probably situated on a caribou or elk migration route and was visited on an annual basis to hunt these animals.
Caribou hunting

The majority of Paleoindian sites in Pennsylvania are small and only contain one or two fluted spear points and a few other stone tools. Food remains in the form of partially burned bone, nuts or seeds are hardly ever found. One of the few sites in the East to produce actual dietary remains is the Shawnee-Minisink (36Mr43) site in the Upper Delaware Valley. This site has changed the theory that portrayed the Paleoindians as the big-game hunters in the East. Shawnee-Minisink is one of the few deeply buried Paleoindian sites in the East. The site was discovered by Don Kline and first excavated by Dr. Charles McNett from American University. More recently, additional excavations have been completed under the direction of Joseph Gingerich of the University of Wyoming. The site contains many tools, including over one hundred scrapers but only two fluted points. Based on radiocarbon dating, the Paleoindian occupation dates to 10,950 years ago.

fluted projectile points from Shawnee Minisink Site (36Mr43)

Several cooking hearths yielded a variety of carbonized seeds including hawthorn plum, hickory, and fish bone. Unfortunately, the fish bone could not be identified to genus or species. The occupants of this site seem to be generalized foragers rather than big game hunters. Compared to the Shoop site, there is no evidence in the form of large numbers of stone spear points for extensive hunting at Shawnee-Minisink. Further, 95% of the stone for making tools was a locally quarried chert probably collected within two miles of the site. The remaining toolstone originated less than 100 miles from its source which suggests a territory much smaller than the Shoop site.

These two sites present very different pictures of Paleoindian subsistence patterns and the Paleoindian lifestyle. However, when we begin to examine Paleoindian sites to the north in New England and Canada or to the south in Virginia and the Carolinas, a pattern begins to emerge. There are several sites in New England that are similar to Shoop with large numbers of spear points and hide scrapers made in stone that was transported hundreds of miles. At several of these sites fragments of burned caribou bone has been recovered verifying the exploitation of this animal. To the south, Paleoindian habitation sites are small, containing small numbers of finished spear points, a variety of tool types and these are frequently made in stone from sources less than 100 miles away. These two types of sites seem to represent different subsistence patterns; one exploiting a variety of plants, animals and fish and the other utilizing at least some of their time exploiting migratory game such as caribou, elk, or migratory birds.

Pennsylvania is on the border of these two adaptations. During the Paleoindian period in both regions people moved their camps in a seasonal pattern or “round” to the locations of predictable food resources, such as along the migration routes of caribou, water fowl, or anadromous (spawning) fish. The seasonal round also included a number of plant-food collecting sites although we do not know much about these. Compared to later groups, their seasonal round was very large covering over 100 miles. In the northern part of the state there is evidence for the hunting of migratory caribou. In the southern part of state, general foraging in the form of gathering seeds, nuts, berries, roots and fishing was more common. Their subsistence strategy involved collecting the most concentrated foods and those that did not require any special processing. Their adaptation involved traveling long distances to more easily exploitable resources. The Ice Age was a harsh time, but human populations were very low and there was little competition among bands over the easily exploitable foods. Although, the overall quantity of food in this environment was low, the human population was also small permitting their choice of foods that were the easiest to collect. Although hunting probably dominated Paleoindian subsistence in Pennsylvania, they were not primarily big game hunters and approximately 40% of their diet was from seeds, nuts, berries and roots. This is in contrast to the Archaic period when plant foods dominated the diet.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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