American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Paleo-Indians

The term "Paleo-Indians" describes the earliest inhabitants of North America (ca. 10,000–8,000 BCE). According to one version of events (many Native peoples describe their origins differently), these hunter-gatherers originated in northeast Asia and colonized North America sometime around 10,000 BCE, crossing a now submerged land bridge that connected Russia to Alaska during the last Ice Age. Clovis people, the first widespread North American cultural group, rapidly colonized much of the continent between about 10,000 to 9000 BCE, suggesting that they were highly mobile and adaptive to changing environments. Around 9000 BCE, the cultural uniformity of the Clovis period fragmented into regional hunter-gatherer groups. Paleo-Indians in each region were uniquely adapted to their respective environments, each developing distinctive tool kits and lifeways.

The timing, route, and process of the first colonization remain contentious issues in North American archaeology. Nonetheless, most archaeologists subscribe to the land bridge theory. Indeed, some of the oldest evidence of Paleo-Indians can be found in northwestern North America. Sites in Alaska have yielded tools and other cultural remains, including small teardrop-shaped projectile points called Chindadn points. Archaeologists call this group the Nenana complex (Hamilton and Goebel, 1999). They hunted sheep, elk, and birds. About 1,000 years later, a new technology developed in the Arctic based on microblades, which are specialized stone flakes used to make composite hunting tools. Little is known about the lifeways of these later Paleo-Indians, named the Denali complex. They likely hunted both land and marine animals (e.g., caribou and fish).

While Alaska was mostly ice-free during the last Ice Age, much of Canada was covered by a thick ice sheet that blocked early Paleo-Indian migration into the contiguous United States. There were two possible migration routes from Alaska to the continental interior. The first is called the Ice-Free Corridor route, which was an opening east of the Rockies between the two large ice sheets that covered Canada. Paleo-Indians may have followed migrating animals southward through this corridor into the United States (Wilson and Burns, 1999). Some archaeologists, however, have questioned the Ice-Free Corridor theory. Archaeological sites south of the ice sheets, which may be older than the Ice-Free Corridor, suggest that another route may have been used. Early Paleo-Indians may have traveled down the West Coast, either on foot or by boat. Unfortunately, very early sites have not been found in this region, so the presence of early Paleo-Indians cannot be confirmed (Dixon, 1999).

In any discussion of prehistoric North America, two other perspectives should be mentioned. Some archaeologists propose that North America was colonized long before 10,000 BCE, perhaps as early as 30,000 BCE (Dixon, 1999). They point to the presence of a few archaeological sites in North and South America that appear to predate Clovis times. Two of the best-known are Monte Verde in Chile, which has evidence for a Paleo-Indian occupation about one thousand years before Clovis times, and Meadow-croft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania, which may date as early as 16,000 BCE. The validity of these early sites is passionately debated among scientists. Alternatively, many Native Americans take issue with these archaeological theories because their oral histories state that their ancestors have lived in North America since the time of creation.

Although the specific route and timing of the first Paleo-Indian colonization remain contentious, there is widespread agreement that by 9500 BCE Paleo-Indians occupied much of North America. The oldest archaeological sites often contain Clovis spear points, associated with the remains of now extinct animals like mammoth, megabison, and horses. Clovis spear points are distinguished by their flutes, which are large channel-like flake scars that typically reach from the point's base to its midsection. Because of this feature, they are often called fluted points. The extensive occurrence of Clovis sites has led some archaeologists to suggest that the distribution indicates a single widespread cultural group, while others maintain that the distribution results from the rapid transfer of a new technology (the Clovis projectile point) from group to group.

Clovis hunter-gatherers were very proficient at killing large mammals, though they also utilized a wide range of smaller animals and plants. The first appearance of Clovis hunters in North America coincided with the extinction of many large mammal species (e.g., mammoth, horse, and camel). This has led some to argue that the first Paleo-Indians hunted these animals to extinction. Although there is little doubt that early Paleo-Indians were highly skilled hunters, it is likely that the rapidly changing climate of the last Ice Age contributed to these extinctions.

Paleo-Indians in the Great Basin region of western North America used two different technologies between 10,000 and 8000 BCE. Some of the earliest sites contain projectile points similar to the Clovis-style, whereas others contain stemmed points. These different technologies may represent multiple Paleo-Indian groups living in the region at the same time or a cultural change over time. Unlike their neighbors on the Great Plains, Paleo-Indians from the Great Basin appear to have focused their diet on waterfowl, fish, and small mammals rather than big game.

The Great Plains region has some of the best evidence for early Paleo-Indian lifeways, with abundant Clovis sites dated between 10,000 and 9000 BCE. Distinctive Clovis fluted points are often found associated with the remains of large mammals. Between 9000 and 6000 BCE several other Paleo-Indian groups inhabited the Great Plains, including Folsom, Agate Basin, Hell Gap, Alberta, and Cody. Because many large mammals went extinct during the Clovis period, these later Paleo-Indians focused instead on bison hunting. They used natural and constructed traps to contain large herds of bison to kill dozens of animals at once. Most aspects of Plains Paleo-Indian lifeways were connected to the bison.

Eastern North America was home to different groups of Paleo-Indians. Since environments in the east differed from those in the west, Paleo-Indians in this region used different hunting methods and toolkits (Storck, 2004). Early projectile points found in the east are similar to their western counterparts (often fluted) but include small differences in overall shape. Some common types of eastern Paleo-Indian projectile points include Gainey, Parkhill, Crowfield (in the northeast), and Cumberland and Suwannee (in the southeast). Unfortunately, the cultural chronology is not as well understood in the east as it is in the west. Eastern Paleo-Indians were proficient hunters, able to kill mastodon, caribou, and other large mammals. They were probably more generalized than their Great Plains counterparts, using a wide range of animals and plants in their diets.

Much of what we know about Paleo-Indian life-ways comes from their stone tools and hunting methods. The presence of tools made from stone originating over 1,000 kilometers away indicates that Paleo-Indians were highly nomadic. They lived in small bands comprised of several families, although they periodically formed larger social groups. They were highly skilled hunter-gatherers able to adapt quickly to new environments (Anderson and Gillam, 2000). Their main hunting technology was the spear and atlatl (spear thrower), which was tipped by specialized projectile points. We know little of their religion and beliefs, although there is some evidence for possible religious activity (Storck, 1991).

Jason David Gillespie


Further Reading
Anderson, David G., and J. Christopher Gillam. 2000. "Paleoindian Colonization of the Americas: Implications from an Examination of Physiography, Demography, and Artefact Distribution." American Antiquity 65: 43–66.; Dixon, E. James. 1999. Bones, Boats and Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.; Hamilton, Thomas D., and Ted Goebel. 1999. "Late Pleistocene Peopling of Alaska." In Ice Age Peoples of North America: Environments, Origins, and Adaptations. Edited by Robson Bonnichsen and Karen L. Turnmire, 156–199. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press.; Storck, Peter L. 1991. "Imperialist Without a State: The Cultural Dynamics of Early Paleoindian Colonization as Seen from the Great Lakes Region." In Clovis: Origins and Adaptations. Edited by Robson Bonnichsen and Karen L. Turnmire, 153–162. Corvallis: Center for the Study of First Americans.; Storck, Peter L. 2004. Journey to the Ice Age: Discovering an Ancient World. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.; Wilson, Michael Clayton, and James A. Burns. 1999. "Searching for the Earliest Canadians: Wide Corridors, Narrow Doorways, Small Windows. " In Ice Age Peoples of North America: Environments, Origins, and Adaptations. Edited by Robson Bonnichsen and Karen L. Turnmire, 213–248. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press.
 

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