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common ground

The Earliest Americans
Spring/Summer 2000

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*  The Northeast

(image) Paleoindian Hunting Scene.

"Some Paleoindians witnessed catastrophic drops in the Great Lakes from levels far above to far below today. They saw a landscape transformed on a scale we can scarcely imagine."

Michael J. Shott

by Dena F. Dincauze

The Northeast covered 360,000 square miles, from the Atlantic coastal plain, west across the broad Piedmont valleys, to the folded and crumpled Appalachian Mountains and the eastern Allegheny Plateau. During Pleistocene times, except for the southerly reaches of what is now Delaware and lower Pennsylvania, even the highest peaks were periodically covered by massive glaciers up to a mile thick. Ice, wind, and water scoured bedrock, moved sediment, and left a veneer of sand and gravel everywhere in the region. Glacial lakes formed and drained as the ice melted, and the sea level rose as the water flowed in. Forests and grasslands succeeded the tundra on ice-free land, and deer, bear, and other modern animals lived with caribou, mastodonts, and other animals that are now extinct or that have since moved farther north.

Paleoindian exploration of the region was comparable to a moon walk, or settling islands in the Pacific-relying entirely on one's own ingenuity. The first people showed themselves equal to the challenge, creating mental maps and gazetteers for naming and organizing knowledge about landforms, sources of useful stone and other raw materials, vegetation, and animals, many of which they had never before encountered. Exploring unknown terrain, the first Paleoindian settlers had to adapt quickly to strange environments and to different and often rapidly changing climatic conditions.

How did people first reach the Northeast? Traditional Native Americans believe they were created there. Most scientists think they first came from places farther south or west at the end of the most recent Ice Age, known as the Wisconsinan Glaciation, sometime between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago (see sidebar on dating the era, page 25). Scholars debate the routes traveled by these pioneers, having minimal direct evidence. Formidable obstacles had to be overcome along whatever route they chose. Deep iceberg-strewn lakes filled the eastern Great Lake basins where the edge of the melting glacier stood. Farther east, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean called the Champlain Sea covered today's Lake Champlain and the adjacent St. Lawrence lowland. Rivers swollen with torrents of glacial meltwater-clogged with silts, sands, and gravels-presented daunting barriers. Expanses of swamp and wetlands bordered the glacial lakes, seas, and rivers; these too impeded free passage. Migratory waterfowl and other animals were the guides across and around the steep Appalachian ridges and broad Piedmont valleys, as well as over a coastal plain whose broad sandy flatlands covered what is now the Gulf of Maine and the Nantucket and Long Island Sounds to as far as 100 miles east of the present-day shoreline.

The timing of these arrivals remains uncertain. The earliest radiocarbon readings for human occupation in the Northeast, dating to as long as 17,000 years ago, are from the Meadowcroft site in southwestern Pennsylvania, the only systematically excavated rockshelter in the region where intact Paleoindian deposits have been reported. These dates, not yet replicated elsewhere in the Northeast, remain controversial. Elsewhere in the region, sites dating around 10,800 years ago-containing chipped stone blades, scrapers, knives, and Clovis-style fluted projectile points similar to those found farther south and west-represent the earliest widely documented human occupations in the Northeast. Charcoal from northeastern sites has enabled archeologists to create the nation's largest and most complete suite of radiocarbon dates for fluted points.

The initial peopling of the Northeast has long been a source of scientific speculation. More than a century ago, New Jersey resident Charles Conrad Abbott mistakenly asserted that crude-looking tools found in gravels near Trenton were as old as Lower Paleolithic tools in Europe (older than 100,000 years). Modern scientific research began in the 1950s with investigations at Pennsylvania's Shoop site and the Bull Brook site in Massachusetts. Both were multi-acre locales larger than Paleoindian sites elsewhere in the country. Each contained hundreds of whole or fragmentary fluted projectile points resembling the Clovis points found farther west.

Assays from western sites, using the newly developed radiocarbon dating technique, revealed that the Clovis sites contained the oldest evidence of human habitation on the continent. Unfortunately, investigators projected the interpretation of these people as big game steppe hunters into the Northeast's forested, mountainous terrain.

This and many other ideas about Paleoindian life have been challenged by an avalanche of recent findings, funded in large part by programs mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act. None of the sites discovered has yet to yield evidence of the dramatic herd-kills that point to big game hunting. It is true that all but the most deeply buried Paleoindian sites have been damaged by plowing, development, vandalism, or collectors seeking the exquisite ancient artifacts that command high prices on the international antiquities market. That said, analysis of the Northeast's sites and artifacts has shed new light on how the early Americans adapted to challenging and rapidly changing environments.

Fluted projectile points are the most numerous, most widespread, and most telling artifacts associated with Paleoindian occupation in the Northeast. Most are crafted from high quality cherts and other rocks particularly suited for stone tool manufacture. Usually they are found near rivers, lakes, and wetlands, which were frequented by the earliest Americans. Others are associated with exposed bedrock outcrops where Paleoindians quarried and worked stone into fluted points and other implements.

New Insights

Burned animal bone recovered at Bull Brook and several other sites affirm that Paleoindians were a major new predator on the scene. However, the absence of convincing evidence implies that people were not the primary cause of the extinctions already well underway in the region. Discoveries of charred nutshells and fish bones at Pennsylvania's Shawnee-Minisink site suggest more generalized subsistence patterns focused on fishing, hunting, trapping, collecting, and harvesting.

The largest sites were almost certainly residential. Archeologists have variously interpreted them as places for seasonal hunts, group gatherings, and staging areas for colonizing forays into unfamiliar territory. Evidence at the smaller sites, usually called camps, is less diverse than at the large ones, indicating shorter, more focused, residence.

Research in bedrock quarries has increased lately. Analyses of the cherts and other stones used for tool manufacture indicate that Paleoindians quickly located the best and most readily available quarries, both bedrock and gravel spreads. Some of the largest are the Munsungan Lakes group in Maine, and the West Athens Hill, Flint Mine Hill, and Divers Lake sites in New York.

Archeologists in the region adapt the Great Lakes projectile point style sequence, developed for Michigan, to link Paleoindian sites with time periods and environmental conditions. Overall, the point styles are not cleanly discrete in time-there are intermediates between all of them, and more than one may appear in a given site. These two observations support the inference that Paleoindian use of the region was essentially continuous following the initial colonization. The earliest securely dated fluted projectile points found widely in the Northeast date between 10,800 to 10,500 years ago. These are straight-sided, concave-base fluted points ground dull around their bases, comparable to Clovis points found farther west. Variously known in the region as Gainey and Bull Brook-style artifacts (named after the sites where they were first scientifically described) these are found widely in the Northeast. Deeply concave-based Debert/Vail types largely occur in more northerly sites, while distributions of distinctive Shoop-style points concentrate in the south-central reaches of the region (the Middle Atlantic states). Several varieties of fluted point styles with recurved margins appear in sites dating from 10,500 to 10,100 years ago. Found throughout the region, these Barnes-Parkhill-Neponset points are the most numerous and widespread fluted points in the Northeast. A stylistically similar type, the Cumberland point, occurs mainly in the southerly and westerly parts of the Northeast.

The final fluted point style, known as Crowfield and mainly found in the northwestern portions of the region, dates around 10,100 years ago. Holcombe, Turkey Swamp, and other unfluted lance-like or triangular points occur in sites dating from 10,100 to 9,000 years ago, the Early Holocene period. They overlap in time with large lance-shaped points that were typical of the St. Lawrence Valley until about 8,000 years ago.

Ancient Economies

Projectile points represent only a small part of the evidence of how Paleoindians satisfied basic needs for food, raw materials, shelter, and finished goods. The notion that Paleoindians used their projectiles primarily to hunt big game is fading-caribou, for example, were present but not in huge herds, nor were they larger than the native deer, moose, and elk. A new consensus has emerged that in a rapidly changing and diverse environment, one eats what is available. Small animals including birds, rabbits, fish and seals as well as edible plants were no doubt essential to survival.

Scientific analysis has shown that the bedrock sources are often far from places where points are discovered. Some archeologists speculate that such distribution patterns indicate the existence of long-range trade routes. Others, however, argue that trade was far too uncertain a mode of distribution for people spread so thinly on the land. Instead, scholars increasingly view the evidence as indicating residential mobility, marriage ties, symbolic exchange networks, and regularly scheduled seasonal moves.

Studies of stone tool wear patterns and hafting elements illustrate the versatility of Paleoindian toolkits, with their range of tools and other artifacts created from diverse materials. The earliest Americans relied upon lightweight and multipurpose implements crafted from the best available materials. Bifaces served as projectiles, knives, and flake cores. Unifacial scrapers removed flesh, hair, and fat from skins, shredded bark and wood to line cradles and make cordage, and shaped bone, ivory, horn, and wooden hafts and handles. Gravers scored bone and horn, and pierced skins; knives cut and shaped soft materials-meat and skins. Many of these tools doubtless were used by women. Further archeological analysis can offer clues to gender roles in the region's first economies.

Picturing Culture

Today, researchers in the region are using the archeological record to test models of Paleoindian population size, density, composition, mobility, and identity. One of the assumptions guiding interpretations-that uniformities in artifact style and material-use may be indicators of social identity-may not apply to thin, mobile populations such as those of late glacial North America. We should be prepared for surprises here. Even if the assumption is correct, the meaning may vary depending on the density of settlement, the environment, and a host of other variables.

How populous were these groups? Estimates depend on the vagaries of radiocarbon dating. Long spans of time can become compressed within relatively narrow bands of radiocarbon dates, suggesting larger, denser populations than actually existed. The substantial number of small sites (many containing remains of more than one occupation) suggests small mobile societies of less than 50 people exploiting territories ranging from several hundred to many thousands of square miles. Changes in settlement patterns and artifact styles through time suggest shrinking territories and mobility, abandonment of certain regions, and rising social complexity after the short period of return to cold called the Younger Dryas.

Central Pennsylvania may have been a political and demographic watershed between the Northeast and the Southeast. Although there is debate, archeologists note that the occupants of the Shoop site may have collected chert from the gravel outwash of the nearby Susquehanna River, not from bedrock near Lake Ontario, another supposition. Since the point styles resemble those of farther south, Shoop may lie near the limit of populations moving from that direction. Farther north, the Gainey-Bull Brook and Debert-Vail styles apparently arrived from the west.

Of more ephemeral things like cultural values and beliefs, we have little in hand. No clearly identifiable Paleoindian rock art has been found in the Northeast. The meaning of the donut-shaped stone beads found at New York's Hiscock site and the DEDIC site in Massachusetts remains uncertain. Small fluted projectiles discovered at numerous sites in the region may be shamanic paraphernalia, toys, or simply small points.

A New Dawn for the First Americans?

With the volume of information gathered over the last decade and a half-a harvest of efforts to preserve sites endangered by public projects like highway construction-researchers are looking beyond traditional site surveys and excavations to advance the state of knowledge. Recent studies of the extraordinary number of artifacts unearthed in accordance with preservation laws hint at the enormous research potential.

Although the Paleoindian point-style chronology in the Northeast needs refinement, it is the best-dated and most complete in North America. Site-distribution studies, such as intensive statewide inventories, can bring more properties under the wing of public protection. Improved ability to recognize raw materials and where they came from will permit a more accurate picture of how they were used and transported. With the right equipment, artifact research will inform about individual sites, perhaps even about how and where men and women went about their respective tasks. Detailed mapping of settlement floors through excavation will give us a better idea of how many people were there, and for how long. Better paleoenvironmental data will improve our understanding of how the earliest Americans adapted to changing times. GIS mapping programs at both the regional and continental levels will support studies of human geography in these remote times.

This exploratory regional review should help to open discourse about northeastern Paleoindians and stimulate consideration of alternative interpretations of new evidence.

For more information, contact Dr. Dena F. Dincauze, Department of Anthropology, Box 34805, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Amherst, MA 01003-4805, (413) 545-2867, fax (413) 545-9494, e-mail dincauze@anthro.umass.edu.

Select References

There is no summary of northeastern Paleoindian sites that reflects current understanding. The sources here are chosen for clarity, accessibility, and representativeness. Readers seeking further information on the Northeast may consult the references listed in each source, keeping in mind that the subject is rapidly developing.

Adovasio, J. M., D. R. Pedler, J. Donahue, and R. Stuckenrath [posthumous], "Two Decades of Debate on Meadowcroft Rockshelter," North American Archaeologist vol. 19, no. 4 (1998), pp. 317-341. Recent issues on Meadowcroft from the perspective of the investigators. The confrontational tone mirrors the controversies surrounding the site. The article corrects earlier errors in citations of radiocarbon dates.

Byers, Douglas S., "Bull Brook-A Fluted Point Site in Ipswich, Massachusetts," American Antiquity vol. 19 (1954), pp. 343-351. This article announced the presence of significant large early sites in the Northeast, at a time when the preeminence of the Southwest seemed established.

Curran, Mary Lou, "New Hampshire Paleo-Indian Research and the Whipple Site," The New Hampshire Archeologist vol. 33/34 (1994), pp. 29-52. A major contribution to knowledge of northern New England Paleoindians.

Custer, Jay F. and R. Michael Stewart, "Environment, Analogy, and Early Paleoindian Economies in Northeastern North America," in Early Paleoindian Economies of Eastern North America, Kenneth B. Tankersley and Barry L. Isaac, eds., Research in Economic Anthropology, Supplement 5, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1990, pp. 303-322. Strongest on the Middle Atlantic states, it is reliable and innovative in attempting to model Paleoindian economies.

Dincauze, Dena F., "Fluted Points in the Eastern Forests," in From Kostenki to Clovis: Problems in Late Paleolithic Adaptations, O. Soffer and N. D. Praslov, eds., New York: Plenum, 1993, pp. 279-292. Prepared in 1989 to introduce Soviet Paleolithic scholars to Paleoindians in the eastern United States. The emphasis is on differences from western kill sites with megafauna, and on the more abundant cultural data in eastern habitation sites. Among the first of a recent spate of survey articles on eastern sites.

Spiess, Arthur E., Deborah Brush Wilson, and James Bradley, "Paleoindian Occupation in the New England-Maritimes Region: Beyond Cultural Ecology," Archaeology of Eastern North America vol. 26 (1998): pp. 201-264. An ambitious review of Paleoindian sites, artifact styles, and lithic sources east of the Hudson-Champlain valley. The argument is that Paleoindian subsistence was significantly based on caribou, and that long-distance movements for prey and desirable stone materials were fundamental to Paleoindian culture.

MJB/EJL