Native Peoples of North America

Paleo Indian Period and Tradition

Making a Living in the Early Americas

Archaeologists use the term Paleo-Indian tradition to refer to the manifold adaptive patterns developed by the first peoples who inhabited the Americas up until the end of the Ice Age, and a little bit thereafter. . Paleo-Indian campsites (and killsites) are found nearly everywhere in the Americas: some Paleo-Indian bands were living just a few hundred kilometers south of the southern edge of the continental glacier complexes, where there was a narrow tundra inhabited by caribou and musk-ox which provided the people with a ready source of animal protein. South of the tundra zone, many parts of the western half of unglaciated North America had park-like alterations of evergreen and oak forests with grasslands grazed by small camels and horses, antelope, and ground sloth. Such animals, along with easily harvested and processed plant resources, provided In Northeastern North America subarctic pine forests clothed much of the land, in which could be found moose, mastodon, and giant beaver, while the Southeast had mostly deciduous forests with deer the principal game. In South America, end-of-the-Ice-age human populations were living in a wide variety of environments, from the desert Pacific coast of Peru to the temperate rain forests of southern Chile, from the high Andean uplands of Columbia to the Caribbean coastal zone of Venezuela.

In North America, the best and most widespread evidence of the Paleo-Indians is represented by three distinctive "cultures":

Subsistence Practices

For a very long time it was believed that all Paleo-Indians were primarily big-game hunters, an interpretation based principally on evidence from "kill-and butcher" sites of the Clovis and Folsom traditions of the western plains of North America. Clovis is among the earliest of the North American Paleo-Indian cultures and over a period of about 400 years, from about 11,400 to 11,000 radiocarbon years ago, small bands of spread across much of North America. Their diagnostic artifacts, including the beautifully made fluted "Clovis" points (as well as a variety of other tools seemingly made for butchering large game animals) have been found at sites throughout the Plains, the Great Basin, the southwestern regions of the U.S., and into the eastern woodlands of North America. Although the data is far from clear, it appears that some Clovis groups may have been specialized big game hunters since the majority of Clovis sites are associated with the killing and butchering of large game such as Woolly and Imperial mammoths, caribou, and long-horned bison. From such animals the Clovis people could obtain meat to last them for many days, as well as bones, hide, and sinew for household possessions, structures, clothing, and tools.

But it's probably a mistake to think of the Clovis people, or any of the Paleo-Indians as only big-game hunters. Recent evidence reveals a much more complex picture: sites in both North and South America show that far from there being a single subsistence mode and a universal adaptive pattern, the Paleo-Indians adapted locally and diversely to the extraordinary variety of climate and topographical conditions in the Americas. For example, in South America people were living in all major environmental zones by at least 11,000 radiocarbon years ago (13,020 calendar years). In some areas, they hunted extinct forms of horse, mastodon as well as deer; in other areas, a specialized maritime economy was flourishing by 11,105 radiocarbon years ago (13,025 calendar years); and in still other areas, people were living in semiarid savanna-woodland environments and subsisting off of a varied of game and edible plants. There are even sites which show that by 11,100 years ago (13,025 calendar years), people had adapted to the tropical rain forest deep in the Amazon Basin, exploiting a variety of tropical fruits and nuts, taking fish and mussels from the streams, and hunting small-game animals. Thus, it's likely that most groups led a generalized gathering-hunting way of life, taking both large and medium-sized animals, along with small mammals such as rabbits, as well as exploiting wild plant foods as well perhaps as aquatic resources when the opportunity to do so arose.

The older view may have been biased toward the big-game hunting hypothesis because earlier archaeologists didn't use the specialized fine-screening techniques needed to recover the remains of plants and small bones. But when fine-screening and/or flotation recover techniques are used, they yield a very different picture of Paleo-Indian subsistence patterns. For example, using fine-screening Anna Roosevelt and her team were able to recover at the site of Caverna da Pedra Pintada in the rain forest of the Amazon Basin, evidence indicating that Paleo-Indians visited the cave regularly for more than one thousand years, foraging from the rain forest and from the river, gathering fruits and seeds, such as Brazil nuts and palm seeds, from common tropical plants and trees, and hunting fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and shellfish. Food remains also included not only small but very young animals -- perhaps an indication that women and children, as well as men, were participating in food-getting.

A similar broad-spectrum subsistence pattern was revealed at the Paleo-Indian camp site of Shawnee-Minisink, located on a terrace of the Delaware River near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. The site was occupied some time between 9,700 and 9,500 radiocarbon years ago. Using flotation techniques, the site's excavators were able to recover hackberry, wild plum, grape, blackberry, ground cherry and goosefoot, as well as some tiny fish bones from the site's several hearths. The site also yielded evidence indicating that its occupants were harvesting salmon during the fall from the Delaware River and its tributaries.And at the Warm Mineral Springs site in Florida, archaeologists recovered, in addition to the the skeleton of a man who was buried there some 10,300 radiocarbon years ago, evidence indicating that the site's occupants were exploiting not only large game, but animals as small as the raccoon and the frog, as well as plant foods. And there are indications that some of the occupation at the site may even date to before 11,000 radiocarbon years ago.

In some regions people seem to have ignored the large game animals, concentrating instead on medium and small game, as well as gathering fruits, berries and leafy greens. And depending upon the region, this gathering-hunting economic mode was coupled with fishing, shellfish collecting, or the taking of sea mammals. For example, archaeologists have recovered from the damp, cramped bear den called On Your Knees Cave on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, the remains of a man who died some 9,200 years ago. Chemical signatures in bits of his jaw and pelvis reveal that he ate a diet heavy in seafood, rather than relying on the meat of abundant deer or bear. Somewhat similarly, Spirit Cave Man, who lived and died in Nevada about 9,400 years ago, lived off of fish taken from a nearby lake and small mammals he had hunted.

Their chipped stone tools, weapons, and utensils were among the most efficient in the world at that time; in additon, they were adept transforming a variety of plant fibers into a number of skillfully made items, such as string, twine, rope, basketry, various types of nets, as well as fashioning trim plant fiber clothing and sandals. For example, at the Spirit Cave site in western Nevada, archaeologists discovered the skeleton of a man who was buried there about 9,400 years ago. Along with his bones, archaeologists also found the man's rabbit fur robe, two shrouds of woven tule reeds, and well-worn moccasins made of three kinds of animal hide. They also made and wore a variety of personal adornments and religious objects from stone, horn, bone, walrus-tusk ivory, shell, and other natural materials.

One of the most exciting and intersting sites from the Paleo-Indian period is Monte Verde in southern Chile. Occupied about 13,000 radiocarbon years ago, the site lay along the banks of a small creek some 15 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean. When the people left the site, rising creek waters flooded the site and deposited a layer of peat over the settlement, thus preserving it. In fact, 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).

Social Organization and Settlement Patterns

We know virtually nothing about Paleo-Indian social organization. But if they were like all known gathering-hunting societies, kin and marriage ties linked one microband with another. Vital social necessities most likely included sharing, egalitarian status, and social flexibility.

Likewise, it's not known whether they moved from camp to camp without a home base; or if they moved through a well-defined territory, timing their movements according to the seasonal availability of resources; or it they anchored their movements to one particular home base, leaving it for extended time periods of from a few hours to a few weeks, but always returning to the same home spot.

End of the Paleo-Indian Traditions

The end of the Ice-Age (Pleistocene) brought warmer conditions and less precipitation throughout North America. Many of the game animals the Paleo-Indians had exploited became extinct as the Pleistocene ended and the habitats that had supported plants and animal populations changed. Those animal species that did not move northward with the retreating ice died out and were replaced by others that expanded out. Soils in newly deglaciated regions were young, and would evolve as they supported a succession of plant and animal species. Forest species expanded into new territories at varying rates. Climates changed rapidly as weather systems altered their movements around shrinking ice sheets. The once exposed continental shelves were innundated by rising sea waters.

All these changes had serious implications for the Paleo-Indians; and they responded by expanding upon certain aspects of their existing lifeways as well as developing new ways of life better suited to the new environments. And gradually, the Paleo-Indian tradtioin gave way to the Archaic way of life.


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Updated: 09 Mar 2000