Friday, July 15, 2011

P is for PaleoIndian

The letter “P” is for pestles, pipes, Pleistocene, pollen analysis, pottery, prehistory, projectile points and this week’s blog will summarize the highlights of the Paleoindian Period in Pennsylvana, the first time period of human settlement in the New World. It dates from 10,000 to at least 16,500 years ago and began with the first people moving into the New World during the Pleistocene or Ice Age. The period ends with changes in the environment and cultural adaptations to a more forested setting.

The Period is subdivided into the Pre-Clovis (between 16,500 and 11,200 years ago), and the Paleoindian (between 11,200 and 10,100 years ago). Although there is mounting evidence for people arriving several thousand years prior to Clovis, the Pre-Clovis Period is very controversial and some archaeologists do not believe that humans were here prior to 11,200 years ago. After Pre-Clovis, the Paleoindian Period is divided into Early, Middle, and Late periods, and these sub-periods are based on styles of spear points. The Paleoindians were highly mobile and generally lived in small groups. In the western United States, they were hunting now extinct animals such as mastodon, mammoth (forms of woolly elephants), bison, and horse, but there is little evidence for the hunting of extinct megafauna east of the Mississippi River and none in the northeastern United States.

There are several very significant archaeological sites from this period in Pennsylvania, representing some of the oldest, largest, and best-dated Paleoindian sites in the eastern United States. Meadowcroft Rockshelter, the oldest site in the state, dates to at least 16,250 years ago. Because the Pre-Clovis technology was not very distinctive, and human population density was very low, sites from this time period are difficult to identify and are very rare. First excavated in the 1970s, Meadowcroft was nearly alone as a Pre-Clovis site in the New World for several decades. However, in the past 15 years, Cactus Hill in Virginia (16,200 BP), Topper in South Carolina (16,000 BP), Debra L. Friedkin in Texas, (15,500 BP.) and Monte Verde in Chile (12,500 BP) have been added to the list of Pre-Clovis sites. Most archaeologists now agree that humans were in North American thousands of years prior to Clovis times.

Meadowcroft Rockshelter

Somewhere in North America around 11,200 years ago, associated with a variety of small distinctive scraping tools and knife-like cutting tools, a new and distinctive spear point was invented. The fluted point, the hallmark tool of the period, is called fluted because of the channel or groove down the length of both sides of the spear point. The groove likely facilitated the hafting of the spear point to the spear shaft.

Fluted points are very interesting for a variety of reasons. First, they are unique to the New World. Humans have been making stone spear points for at least 20,000 years, nowhere else are they fluted. Further, they are relatively difficult to make, and approximately 10% were broken in production. Why would these early visitors to the New World choose such a difficult and unique spear point form? Maybe just for that reason: it was unique and a distinguishing symbol of this culture.

The earliest fluted point style is called Clovis after a town in New Mexico where these were first discovered associated with mammoth bones. Clovis seems to be the most widespread style of fluted point extending throughout the West, the Southeast and as far north as the Shawnee Minisink site in Pennsylvania. A recent review of radiocarbon dates places it rather precisely between 11,100 BP. and 10,800 BP(uncorrected).

Artifacts from one of the largest Paleoindian sites in the Eastern United States, the Shoop site (in upper Dauphin County), were first analyzed by John Witthoft in 1952, then Pennsylvania’s state archaeologist. Over one thousand tools, including hundreds of scrapers and approximately ninety fluted spear points were made from a stone called Onondaga chert, quarried 250 miles to the north in western New York. The site is approximately 40 acres in size with at least eleven concentrations of artifacts. Each concentration may represent a separate visit by Paleoindians between western New York and central Pennsylvania. Some archaeologists have speculated that this site was probably situated on a caribou or elk migration route, visited on an annual basis to hunt these animals.

Shoop projectile points

One of the few known deeply buried Paleoindian sites in the East, Shawnee-Minisink in Monroe County is also one of the best dated Paleoindian sites in the Eastern United States. It contains many tools, including over one hundred scrapers but only two fluted points. Radiocarbon dates from hearths date these tools to 10,950 years ago, a relatively early date for fluted spear points in the Northeast. The two fluted points appear to fit the Clovis style and the dates certainly place the site within the Clovis time frame. Several cooking hearths have been found containing the bones of fish and a variety of carbonized seeds including hawthorn plum, ground cherry, pokeweed, goosefoot (lambs quarter), hackberry, pigweed, grape, blackberry.

Shawnee-Minisink point

It would seem that Shoop and Shawnee-Minisink sites represent different adaptations. Compared to the Shoop site, there is no evidence in the form of large numbers of stone spear points that supports extensive hunting took place 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 the source. This suggests a territory much smaller than the Shoop site. This has caused some serious discussion among archaeologists, however, when this issue is examined on a regional basis, these two sites seem to fit a pattern. The Shoop site is similar to sites in New England and the northern Great Lakes. In these regions, there are several sites where charred caribou bone was found, along with a similar ratio of tools to points of toolstone transported up to 300 miles from its source. It appears these sites represent highly mobile hunting groups. In contrast, the Shawnee-Minisink site is similar to sites to the south containing only a few spear points made from locally available toolstone. These southern groups occupied a territory of 75 to 150 miles and exploited a variety of plants and animals. Contrary to the image of Shoop’s big game hunters, Shawnee-Minisink Paleoindians they were essentially hunters and gathers.

The Paleoindian Period ends with the emergence of a climatic warming trend and a change in the forest type, requiring humans to develop new strategies for acquiring food. New types of artifacts develop as a result, and are identified by Archaeologists as being part of the Archaic Period (10,100 to 4100 before present)). This does not mean that new people replaced Paleoindians. Logically, in the Middle Atlantic region, at least during the Early Archaic period, the Paleoindians were the genetic ancestors of these people.

The Paleoindian Period presents a fascinating opportunity for the anthropological study of very low-density populations over thousands of years, documenting how people occupied a new land and their development of enduring cultural traditions. We are beginning to understand Paleoindian technology and diet, but we have much to learn about their social and cosmological beliefs.

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

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