5. Paleolithic America

Clovis, New Mexico is probably as well-known as Roswell. Clovis points were discovered in 1929 and carbon dated in the 1950’s as being 13,500 years old. By then I doubt that anyone was surprised because the points had been found in campsites where mammoth and Ice Age bison had been butchered, already known to be of a similar age. The Clovis people spread throughout the US but supposedly disappeared about 12,700 years ago along with the mega fauna that they hunted. Perhaps the most absurd theory to come pass was that the Clovis people, in a matter of 1200 years, slaughtered and ate the entire mega fauna population of North America. Seriously? How many Clovis people do they think were here?

Then in the 1970’s there came something of a “disturbance in the force”. Archaeological sites in Chile were producing artifacts and other evidence of human habitation dated at 14,800 years, a thousand years older than the oldest Clovis artifacts.

Two migration hypotheses emerged. Humans crossed the Aleutian land bridge from Siberia to western North America about 13,000 to 14,000 years ago. But about 15,000 to 16,000 years ago humans also migrated by boat across the Pacific Ocean from Asia. Until recently it was believed that all Indigenous Americans were descendants of those who came to the Americas via those two migrations, but recent discoveries blow that theory entirely out of the water.

Six sites containing European artifacts have been discovered on the Atlantic Coast are dated to between 19,000 and 26,000 years old. Three of the sites are located on the Delmarva Peninsula in Maryland.  Others include Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania, the sand dunes of Cactus Hill in southeastern Virginia, and 60 miles off the coast of Virginia. Additional sites in Tennessee, Maryland, and as far away as Texas and Florida are now being examined and some cases re-examined, and are expected to yield more evidence.

And what might that evidence be? Artifacts that are virtually identical to those that were made by Solutrean Europeans that lived in an area of France down into the Iberian Peninsula of present day Spain have been discovered in North America. It now appears that the first Americans were in fact European, arriving at least 10,000 years before the Asian-Siberians.

To understand how this could have happened requires a basic understanding of the Ice Age occurring at the time. Much of the North Atlantic was entombed by ice and the water needed to create that ice came from the ocean itself. It is estimated that at the time sea level was 400 feet lower than it is today and the Atlantic Coast extended east about 150 miles beyond its present day location. This is why Solutrean artifacts are being pulled up in fishnets many miles from the coast. Taking these and other things into account it becomes highly possible and apparently probable that people walked across the ice sheet from Europe or sailed along its edge to America’s east coast.

You are probably wondering what on Earth does any of this have to do with Appalachian and Potomac cultures. It’s simple because what we have here are Solutrean-Americans that undoubtedly settled in the region evident in the artifacts as well as evident in key probable genetic markers found in bones 8000 years old discovered in Florida. And let’s not forget all those southern language Isolates we discussed earlier, languages linguistically unrelated to those associated with the land bridge and coastal migrations from Asia to the Pacific Northwest. Numerous southeastern tribes spoke or speak language isolates as did some of the tribes on the northern end of Appalachia.

It now seems nothing more than a footnote in history but it needs to be remembered that Leif Eriksson is believed to have journeyed from Greenland to Newfoundland about a 1000 years ago. The impact he might have had on local culture remains unknown and so far it appears that he did not stay too long.

The southern and mid-Atlantic region during the Pleistocene and early Holocene epochs was cool and wet. The Wisconsin ice sheet, having reached southern Pennsylvania was slowly receding north. Winters were likely on the mild side because the ice sheet blocked Arctic air currents. The melting ice measurably increased the water table. While the higher reaches of Appalachia were tundra, the piedmont or foothills yielded dense forests of pine, fir, spruce, oak, and birch. Game was plentiful; moose, caribou, horse, elk, bison, mastodon and mammoth were well supported. Paleolithic Indians, who lived during the changes, are thought to have been hunter gatherers who left no evidence of having settlements and therefore any notion of territorialism. Land and game were abundant. With few competing neighbors there is no sign of warfare.  While the finds have remained rare, Clovis style projectile points have been found in Virginia and Maryland. However, quite a few have been found in Ohio Valley sites. Some of the evidence suggests a migration corridor from the Ohio Valley through mid-Pennsylvania and throughout the Virginia coastal and piedmont areas. The Catoctin Creek Site on the Virginia bank of the Potomac is the only known Paleolithic site in the Potomac River Valley.

The Archaic Period advanced about 8000 BCE in the warmth of the Pre-boreal and Boreal warmth. Elm, ash, willow, and sycamore moved into the forests. The ensuing climate change decreased the rainfall causing water tables to drop with streams and rivers receding. By the end of the Boreal the horse, camel, mastodon and mammoth disappeared from the region. In 6500 BCE the Atlantic Episode triggered a greater warming trend replacing a warm, humid region with one that was warm and dry. In the forests oak remained dominate but chestnut replaced a good deal of the hickory. The Archaic Period brought changes to tool technology to meet the changes in the environment. The atlatl appears for the first time; a little later, tool bags containing drills, hammer stones, and stone axes, as well as bows and arrows. While hunting continued, foraging was likely on the increase. Evidence suggests that Catoctin Creek remained a center for manufacturing tools. Workshop areas and quarries have been found. Interestingly, about 90% of the stone used to produce the stone blanks or unfinished tools found at the site originated elsewhere. This suggests that people traveled to reach this spot. I find that completely intriguing. It must have been a special place for them.

The Kanawha Valley people of West Virginia left us evidence that takes them through the time of mammoths, and into the world of atlatls, bows and arrows. They eventually became more settled with scattered bands collecting and building villages. The Kanawha people lived in wigwams, dome shaped dwellings constructed of bent poles tied together at the top of the dome. Sticks were tied together to form walls. I can’t help but wonder if they were the people, carrying locally quarried stone, making a pilgrimage to Catoctin Creek, traveling on the migratory route.

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Responses to “5. Paleolithic America”

  1. This is very facinating. I didn’t know most of this – and am so interested.
    ” It now appears that the first Americans were in fact European, arriving at least 10,000 years before the Asian-Siberians.”
    There is a spot that can been seen from the Overlook that at least 2 local archeologists believe may have some of this same evidence from 12,000ish years ago.

    • Yes, the Solutreans making there way here from Europe, while still theoretical, answers a whole lot of questions for me. It is speculated that some of the sites are as old as 26,000 years.