Friday, October 25, 2013

Paleoamerican Research Conference

Report on the Paleoamerican Odyssey Conference, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 10/16 – 10/19/2013

            This week we will report on a conference attended by a member of our staff, Senior Curator of Archaeology, Kurt W. Carr. One of his main research interests is the Paleoindian Period beginning with the entrance of humans into the New World. Last weekend, October 16th -19th, he had the privilege of representing The State Museum of Pennsylvania at a meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico that was devoted to Paleoindian studies. Since 1987 five international conferences were held that address significant issues on the peopling of the New World. These include presentations by experts from North and South American and East Asia. Their focus is on archaeology but include environmental studies, linguistics and DNA studies. The earliest example was the Columbian Quincentenary Symposium sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987. Later conferences were sponsored by the Center for the Study of the First Americans; The First World Summit in 1989; Clovis and Beyond in 1999, Southeastern Paleoamerican Survey in 2005 and Paleoamerican Odyssey in 2013.  

Two of the publications produced in conjunction with the Paleoamerican Conference series

These conferences have followed a similar format that includes thirty minute oral presentations in a large auditorium by professionals, poster sessions and an exhibit room featuring significant artifacts and faunal remains. Interest in this conference has grown significantly over the past 25 years, with over 1200 in attendance this year.  Participants reviewed more than 190 posters in an open forum which allowed them to engage in lively discussion with researchers. Conference presentations and discussion frequently extended into the evening. . Obviously, professional archaeologists represent the majority of attendees but students and amateur archaeologist are also present in large numbers. Amateur archaeologists are also in attendance and many have made significant contributions to Paleoindian studies. They frequently are credited with discovering important archaeological sites.
Dr. Kurt Carr with friend and colleague, Kirk Spur discussing Kurt's poster.
Jon Lothrop presents his poster on Paleoindian artifacts from New York state. 

            Although the state of knowledge concerning the first Americans has evolved, the main themes in these meetings are paleo-environmental reconstruction, the archaeology of Siberia, the migration routes taken by the first Americans to get to North America, the dating of the earliest human expansion out of Siberia (20,000 or 12,000 years ago) and the rate of movement once in the New World (moving to the tip of South America in 1000 years or 5000 years). Focus is also drawn to  the evolution of technology between the Old and New World (flake tools or blade tools), the Clovis adaptation (one culture or many cultures sharing a distinctive artifact type), and subsistence (specialized big game hunters or generalized foragers, the biology of the first Americans and lastly, the evolution of Indian languages.

Map illustrating the various routes into the New World

            Many Russian archaeologists attended the conference in 1989 and everyone was anxious to learn if fluted points had been discovered in Siberia. It turns out that no fluted points have been found west of Beringia.  Beringia is an area of our world that is partly in Russia, partly in Alaska and partly in Canada.  Archaeologists have determined that the fluted points discovered in Alaska were brought by groups migrating from the south.
Clovis Fluted point from the Shawnee-Minisink site in Monroe county, Pennsylvania
 The consensus is that fluting was invented either in the Southwest or the Southeastern United States. At the 1999 conference, there was considerable and sometimes acrimonious debate concerning the entrance date of people into the New World (Pre-Clovis vs. Clovis). At the 2013 meeting, there seems to be a general consensus that humans were expanding out of Siberia into North America by at least 14,000 years ago and probably as early as 18,000 years ago. Some of these groups may have failed or became extinct. For decades the “ice free corridor” located between the Rocky Mountains and the Laurentide Ice Sheet over Hudson Bay was the favored route south from Alaska and emerging onto the northern Great Plains. This assumption fell out of favor at the 1999 conference and was replaced by a Pacific coastal route involving travel by boats. This year, it was suggested that both routes may have been used by North America’s first inhabitants.
Conference attendees listened to over 50 presentations.
            The auditorium could seat all 1200 attendees who listened to over fifty oral presentations. The following is a short summary.
            Vladimir Pitulko et al. reported on the Yena site in Siberia. This is the oldest site above the Arctic Circle and dates to 30,000 BP. It is characterized by a blade tool technology and also illustrates a very sophisticated bone, antler and ivory technology including a rhinoceros horn foreshaft for a spear. This is one of the earliest sites in Siberia and marks the earliest date for when the expansion into Beringia may have begun.
Spear foreshafts found at Yana, a site 500 km(about 300 miles) north of the Arctic Circle in eastern Siberia. these rhino horn foreshafts were fitted to the front end of the spear. If a hunter struck and animal without killing it, he could remove his spear, fit a second foreshaft to the spear, and reuse it.  Credit- The Yana RHS site:Humans in the Arctic before the last glacial maximum, Science, 303:52-56.

            During the Ice Age, sea levels dropped over two hundred feet, exposing much of the continental shelf along our coastal margins. This would have been occupied by the first people entering the New World and may have been their main entrance route down the Pacific coast. In fact, there has been some success at finding Paleoindian materials along the coast of Florida. Quentin Mackie et al. discussed the search for submerged sites along the Northwest Coast of North America which has not yet been successful.
            Dennis Stanford et al. reported on five sites in the Chesapeake Bay area that date to over 20,000 years ago. He believes these archaeological sites demonstrate a migration of people from Europe. His presentation was followed by Connie Mulligan and Andrew Kitchen who used DNA analysis to develop a model for human expansion out of Siberia and into North America. Contrary to Stanford et al. they did not recognize any biological connections with Ice Age European populations. David Anderson et al. has been mapping the distribution of fluted points in North America and used the data base (Paleoindian Database of the Americas  which is available on-line) to develop a number of possible migration routes into North and South America.
Artist Kim Krammes rendition of the arrival of man to the New World
            A common theme that has been repeated at all four of the Paleoamerican conferences is that the data from South America, documented by South America archaeologists is ignored by North American archaeologists. The reasons include the language barrier (more Americans need to be bilingual) but clearly; North American archaeologists do not respect their colleagues south of the border. By all accounts, the Paleoindian period in South America is represented by different types of tools and the oldest sites clearly date prior to many of the fluted point sites to the north. There is no question that there were people here prior to Clovis based on the South American sites and those archaeologists are curious as to why it is even a point of discussion among North American archaeologists.
            For decades, archaeologists have pondered the function of fluting. Why spend so much time fluting projectile points when this results in as much as a 20% failure rate. Bruce Bradley and Michael Collins gave one of the most controversial but innovative presentations. They characterized fluting as part of a revitalization movement. It had a purely symbolic meaning and was part of a response to stress caused by climate change. The Paleoindians were responding to increasing sea level rise and the extinction of the megafauna which had been an important food source. Sounds familiar and who says that archaeology can’t make a contribution to our modern world.
This presentation was followed by Nicole Waguespack who discussed the various hypotheses concerning the Pleistocene extinction and concluded that it was driven by human predation. Finally, Jim Adovasio from Mercyhurst College, who has conducted extensive research at Meadowcroft Rockshelter in southwestern Pennsylvania, reviewed the evidence for a Pre-Clovis occupation in the New World. Based on analysis of the most recent discoveries dating to this time period, he concluded that people were in North America by at least 16,000 years ago.
Dr. Jim Adovasio at Madowcroft Rocksheler site
            The Paleoamerican Odyssey conference was remarkable in many ways, not the least of which is that all of the papers presented were published in book form and was available at the conference. Considering that procrastination is a common characteristic of many archaeologists, this was amazing. In retrospect, archaeology is truly making progress in the search for answers concerning the culture of the first people in the New World. The opportunity to share and discuss research with other scientists is essential for the advancement of our investigations into migration and settlement of the Americas. We have a long way to go but conferences like these help to summarize this progress and add direction for future research.

Adovasio, J. M., D. R. Pedler
2013    The Ones that Still Won’t Go Away

Anderson, David G., Thaddeus G. Bissett, Stephen J. Yerka
2013    The Late Pleistocene Human Settlement of Interior North America: The Role of Physiography and Sea Level Change

Bradley, Bruce A., Michael Collins
2013    Imagining Clovis as a Cultural Revitalization Movement

Mackie, Quentin, Loren G. Davis, Daryl Fedje, Duncan McLaren, Amy E. Gusick,
2013    Searching for Pleistocene-Aged Submerged Archaeological Sites along Western North America’s Pacific Coast

Mulligan, Connie, Andrew Kitchen
2013    Three Stage Colonization Model for the Peopling of the Americas

Pitulko, Vladimir, Pavel Nikolskiy, Aleksandr Basilyan, Elena Pavlova
2013    Yana RHS Site, Earliest Occupation of Beringia

Stanford, Dennis, Darrin Lowery, Margaret Jodry, Bruce Bradley, Marvin Kay, Robert J. Speakman
2013    The Chesapeake Bifaces: Evidence for an LGM Occupation of the Mid-Atlantic region of North America?

Waguespack, Nicole M.
2013    Pleistocene Extinctions: the State of Evidence and the Structure of Debate

Center logo of the 2013 Paleoamerican Odyssey Conference

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

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