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The Earliest Americans
Spring/Summer 2000

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*  The First Immigrants

(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 Robert S. Grumet and David S. Brose

Few topics spark greater interest or inspire more spirited debate than the study of America's first inhabitants, the Paleoindians. Sites preserving evidence of their lives are among the nation's rarest, most sought after, and, by consequence, most threatened. This is especially true east of the Mississippi, where few of these places have received widespread public attention.

This issue draws on a nationwide effort using the latest scholarship to identify sites in the U.S. eastern half, to be evaluated for nomination as National Historic Landmarks or as listings in the National Register of Historic Places. The authors show how multi-disciplinary research by hundreds of their colleagues is transforming ideas about cultural development not only east of the Mississippi, but across the entire continent.

The effort has its roots in the first NHL study on the subject, conducted over 40 years ago. Archeologists led by H. Marie Wormington summarized then-current knowledge to nominate 11 early occupation properties, including New Mexico's famous Clovis and Folsom sites. But the study's emphasis, and the locale of almost all the nominated places, reflected the prevailing view of Paleoindians as big game hunters on the broad prairies of the West.

Much has changed since. Fueled by widespread scholarly and public interest, an explosive surge of exploration-in part driven by preservation law-has unearthed hundreds of sites containing potentially significant evidence. Discoveries by interdisciplinary teams of archeologists, geomorphologists, geophysicists, geochemists, palynologists, paleobiologists, and other specialists are shining new light on Ice-Age human ecology. Recovery of fish scales, charred nutshells, and other delicate plant and animal remains at Pennsylvania's Shawnee-Minisink site and elsewhere permit detailed reconstructions of Paleoindian diet, health, and settlement-subsistence patterns. Advances in radiocarbon dating allow archeologists to plot cultural sequences with increasing clarity and precision. Since Wormington's study, these and other innovations have supported nomination of nine Paleoindian NHLs (including two east of the Mississippi-Virginia's Thunderbird archeological district and North Carolina's Hardaway site) and the listing of seventy properties in the National Register (two-thirds in the East). In addition to inspiring nominations, the flood of findings has also revealed the need to update past designations to reflect current thinking.

The avalanche of data paints a far more complex picture of the earliest Americans east of the Mississippi, challenging ideas about when they arrived and how they adapted to the diverse, ever-changing, and often unpredictable environments of the Ice Age. The findings show that, far from simply being big-game hunters, the Paleoindians survived in complex, flexible, and diverse ways. Other research suggests that Paleoindian occupations may reach farther into the past than previously thought.

Much remains to be discovered, and only archeology can provide the direct physical evidence needed to shape new understandings. The stewards of these fragile Discover History face daunting challenges. Museum curators struggle to accession new finds, preserve existing collections, and make holdings more available to scholars, Indian people, and others eager to learn more about America's first inhabitants. Land managers try to increase public awareness of the need to preserve the past as they confront threats posed by erosion, development, casual collectors, and looters who destroy sites in search of Paleoindian projectile points, prized for their beauty, rarity, value, and association with the earliest Americans.

To meet these challenges, the Park Service asked the Society for American Archaeology to lead an initiative to increase the number of sites recognized as NHLs. In 1995, the effort evolved into a new theme study entitled "The Earliest Americans." Advised by over 30 prominent archeologists-and a spectrum of public and private sector colleagues-we developed the following goals as NPS and SAA project coordinators, respectively:

  • Gather multi-disciplinary evidence on a nationwide scale.
  • Organize it into frameworks ("historic contexts") that aid in identifying, evaluating, and nominating sites.
  • Clarify boundaries of properties already designated.
  • Develop and refine data for use by public agencies and others to preserve and commemorate sites.
  • Make the findings widely available.

The articles here preview the findings from historic contexts developed for regions east of the Mississippi. These contexts-which synthesize the latest science in ways that can be quickly grasped by nonspecialists-are consensus statements rigorously reviewed by scholars, avocationalists, preservationists, land managers at all levels, and others concerned with preserving the fragile physical record of the nation's earliest inhabitants. This does not mean that the authors do not voice their own opinions. Instead, they contrast their views with those of others, stressing points of agreement and dissent.

The contexts serve as vehicles both to nominate new NHL and National Register properties and to update existing designations. Review drafts of the contexts, and final versions, are available in print and on the NPS website (see page 53 for contact information). The Park Service and the SAA invite all interested parties, particularly archeologists and avocationalists, to take part in the study and in nominating properties.