Paleo-Indian Period - First Settlement

This is time period during which people first moved into the Americas. Since at present we do not know when this event occurred, no firm beginning date can be set. As for an ending date, many archaeologists see the end of the Paleo-Indian period coinciding with the end of the last Ice Age in North America. However, some of the lifeways (such as the pursuit of large-bodied mammals by small, nomadic hunting groups) that were being following at the end of the Ice Age were continued into the post-Ice Age times in several parts of North America for several thousand years more. In others areas, though, the lifeways of the Paleo-Indian period were quickly supplanted by very different cultural systems. Thus, the period comes to an end at various times in various places. In strictly chonological terms, the boundary between the Paleo-Indian period and the succeeding Archaic period is usually considered to be some 8,000 to 9,000 years ago.

Until relatively recently, archaeologists generally characterized the societies of the North American Paleo-Indian period as Big-Game Hunting cultures, although it was assumed these societies also depended to some degree on gathered plant foods.

The earliest of the North American Big-Game Hunting cultures was Clovis, appearing about 11,500 years ago. Over the next few centuries, small groups of Clovis people spread across the great plains of North America, as well as into the Great Basin, the southwestern regions of the U.S., and into the eastern woodlands of North America. The Clovis people's material culture is characterized by fluted projectile points or knives as well as a variety of other tools seemingly made for butchering large game animals. Some groups may have been specialized big game hunters living in open, temperate habitats, and camping along rivers and streams in places where big-game came to feed and obtain water.

Most Clovis sites are associated with the killing and butchering of large game such as mammoth, caribou, and long-horned bison, animals from which they could obtain meat for weeks on end, bi-products for household possessions, structures, clothing, and tools. But it would be a mistake to think of the Clovis people as merely big-game hunters. It's likely they led a generalized gathering-hunting way of life, taking both large and medium-sized animals like deer, and small mammals such as rabbits. They must also have exploited wild plant foods as well perhaps as aquatic resources when the opportunity to do so arose. They probably lived in small camps for anywhere from a few days to as long as a few weeks. And as they were people who were constantly on the move, their toolkits were highly effective, lightweight, and portable. Then, around 10,500 years ago, they abruptly vanish from the archaeological record, replaced by a myriad of different local hunter-gatherer cultures. Why this happened no one knows but their disappearnce coincides with the mass extinction of Ice Age big-game animals, leading to speculation that Clovis people either overhunted these mammals and drove them into extinction or over-hunting eliminated a "keystone species" (usually the mammoths or mastodon) and this led to environmental collapse and a more general extinction.

Following the Clovis in time is the Folsom (11,000 - 10,200 yesrs ago), also characterized by fluted projectile points (though smaller and more finely made than Clovis points), an extensive stone and bone tool kit, and an economy focused on hunting bison (an extinct form almost one and one-half times as large as modern bison). After 10,000 years ago, a plethora of similar hunting-based cultures is found in many parts of North America. They are known chiefly from their very similar unfluted but carefully chipped projectile points. These cultures are called Plano and tend to fade out by 6000 B.C. or a little later, either disappearing or perhaps blending with the Archaic cultures.

Major Features

huts at Monte Verde, ChileAt present, the earliest securely dated human settlements in the Americas date to about 14,000 - 12,000 years ago, toward the end of the last glaciation. These First Americans subsisted off big-game, smaller animals and some wild vegetable foods and over the next few centuries they rapidly spread southward reaching South America no later than about 11,000-13,000 years ago. One of the most exciting sites in South America is Monte Verde, a possible 13,000 year old settlement on the banks of a small creek some 15 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean in south-central Chile. Preservation was so good at the site that excavators found the remains of twelve wooden dwellings, fragments of hides used to cover the structures, along with the wooden pins to secure the hides, vegetable food remains, and the bones of animals presumably hunted and eaten by the folks at Monte Verde. (NOTE: The age of the Monte Verde site is being challenged. Stuart J. Fiedel, an archaeologist with John Milner Associates who has published widely on the prehistory of the Americas, analyzed the two epic volumes in which Monte Verde's excavator, T. Dillehay, documented every aspect of his site. Fiedel's conclusion: Problems with Dillehay's documentation raise questions about the provenience--the location, in both space and time, from which it came--of virtually every "compelling" artifact Dillehay cites. Fiedel considers the alleged shortcomings crippling if not fatal to the Monte Verde site. To read Fiedel's report, and various replies to it, go here).





Anthropology 7 Homepage | Preface | Syllabus

Brief Historical Overview
History: Before the Europeans | History: After European Contact

Regional Lifeways

Cabrillo Anthropology Department Home Page | Cabrillo College Home Page

Last Updated 18 Feb 2000 by CSmith