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The Earliest Americans
Spring/Summer 2000

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*  The Midwest

(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 Michael J. Shott

No baseball fan would confuse the contributions of a starting pitcher who labored long innings with a reliever brought in to retire the game's last batter. Both contributed to their team's success, but differently. No fan would call the second pitcher the starter nor credit him with the victory, because the first preceded him by many innings and laid the groundwork for the reliever's finish.

Every year across the Midwest, pioneer culture is celebrated in museums, music, and parades. And with good reason. Pioneers were resourceful, they worked hard, and they overcame formidable obstacles, often at great sacrifice of life and property. They laid the foundation upon which subsequent generations flourished. There is only one problem, and that an innocent one, in our esteem for pioneer lives and times: the people whom we call "pioneers" arrived in the Midwest at least 12,000 years too late truly to claim the honor. In the long span of human occupation of North America, these "pioneers" are 9th-inning relievers. They were preceded on this continent by people who lived here for thousands of years, people who trace their ancestry back to the real pioneers. These were the people who truly settled a land previously unknown to humans. They too were highly resourceful and hard-working, and they too overcame formidable obstacles in their path. They were the people whom archeologists call Paleoindians.

It is both a cliché and the truth to call the United States a nation of immigrants; Americans trace their ancestry to other parts of the world. Most scholars think America's first people also were immigrants, arriving perhaps 11,500 years ago. Most likely, they came from northeast Asia, although there remains some controversy about who colonized the Americas and from where. Paleoindians were modern in the biological sense; there is no evidence for earlier humans like neanderthals anywhere in the New World. Paleoindians also were the ancestors of the Native Americans met by Europeans many millennia later. All available evidence supports this view.

Simple curiosity about distant ancestors is one reason to study Paleoindians, and it requires no special justification. Paleoindians represent a stage of human history worth knowing as much as any other, simply because they lived. There are other reasons, but we must avoid romantic notions about noble hunters in harmony with their environment. That view reduces Paleoindians and their descendants to caricatures, idealized embodiments of all the virtues thought not to characterize modern society. It establishes Paleoindians more as foils to our notions of progress than as legitimate subjects of study in their own right.

The study of Paleoindians is an important scientific task, but the limitations imposed by the archeological record are daunting. No doubt they had diverse, sophisticated material cultures of shelter, clothing, ornament, and tool. In the Midwest, however, most objects have not survived long exposure to the elements. We are left with the imperishable component, chiefly stone tools. Our challenge resembles that facing a future archeologist who contemplates 21st century American society on the basis of an auto mechanic's toolkit. At first glance, the prospects seem severely limited. But with hard thought and work, the archeologist could learn much more about our society than how we tuned engines. Every technology is set in a broader cultural context; guided by reasonable ideas of how tools reflect that context, our archeologist could infer many aspects of our society apparently unknowable.

The Sculpted Landscape

Broadly, the Midwest comprises the Big Ten states of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, as well as Missouri. It is defined by some of the greatest natural features of North America. To the west lie the Great Plains, to the east the Appalachian Mountains. The Midwest's southern boundaries are formed roughly by the Ohio and the lower Missouri Rivers. To the north lie the Great Lakes and the Canadian border. Through the Midwest flows the continent's greatest river, the Mississippi.

The landscape was carved chiefly by successive glacial advances during the Pleistocene Epoch. The last, Wisconsinan, advance, named after the state where glacial deposits were first identified, covered roughly the north half of the Midwest-almost all of Michigan and Minnesota, most of Wisconsin, and some of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa-and began retreating around 18,000 years ago. It left behind a landscape of rolling plains, hilly moraines, and tilted, sandy outwash plains. Northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were occupied by flat lowlands, and the floors of the Great Lakes were higher than at present. Farther south, the Appalachian Plateau reached into southeastern Ohio. Today southern Indiana and Illinois feature ranges of hills that predate the Wisconsinan advance.

A Patchwork of Habitats

When Paleoindians reached the Midwest, it was a complex patchwork of habitats that owed their character to a combination of glacial climate, topography, and soils. Since a massive glacier lay across the north, the climates and habitats to the south naturally were under its influence. Winters, obviously, were cold, summers warm but short. Progressively after about 12,000 years ago, climates slowly shifted toward modern conditions. Yet from about 10,900-10,100 years ago, North America experienced an abrupt and rather severe cold, dry period called the Younger Dryas. Thereafter, the climate again ameliorated.

As Paleoindians entered the Midwest, probably from the west or northwest, its northern zone was a thin band roughly comparable to the modern tundra of northern Canada. Farther south were boreal and deciduous forests, the latter not greatly different from the forests that occupy much of the Midwest today. These people crossed a Mississippi River swollen with meltwater and still incising parts of its floodplain as it coursed southward from the glacial front. Within their lifespans, some Paleoindians witnessed catastrophic drops in the Great Lakes from levels above to far below modern ones. They saw a landscape transformed on a scale that we scarcely can imagine. Suppose you returned to Chicago after several years' absence to discover that Lake Michigan had receded, leaving the city stranded 20 miles inland. This was the momentous transformation of the post-glacial world.

Paleoindians, in short, responded to environmental and geological changes that would stagger us. Dynamism is a hackneyed buzzword, but these people survived environments vastly more dynamic than any known to history. And they adapted successfully, laying the foundation for the cultures that succeeded them and persisted for perhaps 12,000 years before Europeans invaded what they called the "New World."

Eighteenth and nineteenth century settlers contemplated a landscape that they mistook for an unspoiled wilderness. They marveled at the abundance of plant and especially animal species that they encountered, attributing it to nature alone. Yet this abundance was as much the product of 12,000 years of careful, ecologically sophisticated native husbandry as it was the unimproved bounty of nature. In contrast, when Paleoindians reached the Midwest, they were the first humans to tread upon its ground. The region lacked human landmarks, some animal species were unknown and foreign to the newcomers, and no one was there to impart knowledge or guidance for survival, let alone prosperity.

When people reached the Midwest, for instance, mammoths and mastodonts inhabited the region. Thomas Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to search for them in the course of their western exploration. As they did Thomas Jefferson, these beasts fascinate Paleoindian archeologists. Ancient association with them was well established years ago in the West. We can only wonder what Midwestern evidence was unearthed long ago but not recognized. Indeed, tantalizing hints of association are part of Midwestern folklore; most archeologists know a farmer who knew a farmer who had a father who said that his grandfather had a friend who long ago found "spear points" with the fossils of an antediluvian beast. What, for instance, can we make of an Illinois collector's 1921 account of three projectile points "found with a tooth as big as your fist," unless the tooth was a mastodont molar?

The fate of the mammoths suggests a natural global process amidst drastic environmental change. People perhaps hastened the end, but seem not to have caused it. Dramatic reordering of the plant world attended the transformation, especially during the Younger Dryas event. Such change is bad for large-bodied, slowly reproducing, narrowly adapted mammals. The extinctions were waiting to happen. Instead of inquiring whether people extinguished them, we may as easily wonder how they persisted so long.

The Earliest Occupants

Years of determined effort have produced a number of claims of pre-Paleoindian human antiquity in the Midwest and nearby regions. Most claims are questionable on various grounds. Several outside the Midwest and from as far afield as southern Chile, however, are not discredited and may attest to the presence of humans in the Americas before about 12,000 years ago.

The dates of historical events can be elusive, even with the advantages of written records. Imagine the problems that confront archeologists in their efforts to date the remote past. In the face of such difficulties, we use all available methods and evidence. They include radiocarbon dating, the foremost method for events that occurred within roughly the past 60,000 years. But radiocarbon dating requires preserved organics like wood charcoal, comparatively rare in Midwestern sites owing to the region's acidic soil. These are exciting times for Paleoindian chronology, as we learn more about the problems of radiocarbon calibration between roughly 13,500-11,000 years ago. Most if not all Paleoindian occupation falls within this interval, probably comfortably so.

The Midwest is the crossroads of North America. Today the region is a complex, changing pastiche of cultural traditions. Comparable diversity existed in its earliest human history, mirrored by the many styles of projectile points found here, evidence of peoples intersecting. Considering the dynamism of both culture and environment, it is no surprise that we can perceive cultural change throughout the interval.

The earliest identifiable/identified style, Clovis, is found in the western part of the region, along with its successor in the West, the Folsom style. Farther east, the Gainey style, found in the Great Lakes area, represents something of a Clovis-Folsom hybrid, though it seems closer to Clovis. Along the Ohio River, southeastern styles appear too. The Dalton style, which arose late in the period, is scattered widely, but apparently thinly, across the Midwest.

Daunting Complexity

Paleoindian land use was complex. Groups of varying size and composition did different things at different places, leaving behind different kinds and numbers of stone tools and other remains. This has produced a complex archeological record, in which assemblages-collections of tools-accumulated at some places after brief visits by a single social or task group, at others after repeated visits by groups of differing size, composition, and purpose.

In the remote past, as today, assemblages of objects refracted, not simply reflected, patterns of activity in the landscape. This being so, we must be cautious in the meanings we assign. The Earliest Americans Theme Study identifies several Paleoindian property types; all might have different meanings. One is isolated finds, legion in archeological lore. No doubt many such finds are genuine isolated losses in hunting and other acts. Some, however, probably are all that was visible of a larger assemblage on the surface of a plowed field.

Caches-sets of tools placed in graves or deliberately stashed below ground for storage-are a second property type. Clovis caches of fluted bifaces and blades are known from several western states. In the Midwest, although confirmed early Paleoindian caches are rare, tantalizing evidence exists. Besides several in Ontario, a confirmed cache was found in southeastern Iowa. It contains eleven Clovis or Gainey fluted bifaces, most apparently composed of local chert. Perhaps the cache was one person's hunting or tool kit.

Burials are special types of caches, and they can contain stone tools. The Crowfield site in Ontario may be a cremated burial. Late Paleoindian cremation caches include Renier on Wisconsin's Door Peninsula and Gorto in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Because Midwestern soils and climate act against preservation, there are few known kill sites of Paleoindian age. Near St. Louis, Kimmswick yielded Clovis projectile points with mastodons, the only clear association with people in the Midwest. Southwestern Wisconsin's Boaz and other sites yielded some clues that Paleoindians hunted the beasts. Several sites in Michigan, Ohio, and southeastern Wisconsin look promising, but the evidence is not firm because chipped stone tools are absent or rare. At these sites and elsewhere, human association is suggested-but not yet demonstrated-by meticulous studies of cut marks on bone, along with the patterns of skeletal disarticulation and the general absence of bones, which may mean butchery (there has even been some ingenious deduction of season of death).

No doubt, Paleoindians hunted many other species too, but the only evidence in the Midwest is a caribou bone at southeastern Michigan's Holcombe site.

Quarries and workshops are important because they reveal how people made the fluted bifaces and other tools found at Paleoindian properties. Chert is abundant across the Midwest; lamentably, documented quarry/workshops are few. Near the mouth of the Illinois River and several chert quarries lies Ready, the best known early workshop in the region.

On the evidence, occupations are the most common property type. Few are properly documented. No doubt dozens, likelier hundreds, are scattered across the Midwest.

Our Debt to the First Americans

We owe many things to Native Americans, and not just the place names like Wisconsin or Ohio that grace our landscape. We owe them also an agricultural tradition going back millennia, including native domesticates like goosefoot and squash and tropical imports like corn and beans. We owe them a system of river and land routes, natural and forged roads. (The coincidence of our interstate highways and major Native American overland routes is noticeable.) Most broadly, we owe them a landscape that combines natural diversity with the abundance of careful, if often oblique, human cultivation. In turn, they owed it to their forebears. Paleoindians are no footnote to Midwestern history; they are where that history begins.

It took Europeans two centuries or more to complete their occupation of the Midwest, and they had tremendous technical advantages as well as a system of trade and travel routes. Paleoindians did it in about the same time, without the advantages Europeans enjoyed. How they did it is a story at least as important as the history of European occupation. Thus, the Paleoindian subject takes on importance as a case study in the adaptability and resourcefulness of humankind.

Paleoindians created the institutions of lineage and society that later native cultures inherited and transformed in their turn. They forged a political landscape where none existed before them, probably investing the major natural features with great symbolic meaning. Paleoindians also negotiated boundaries between neighboring groups, and altered those boundaries with time as their numbers grew and their habitats and social institutions changed. Crudely, we can map changes over time in the size and orientation of these territories through the distribution and abundance of chert, settlements, and other property types. Paleoindians established the Midwest's first economy-of raw materials like chert, wood, leather, and food sources like caribou and deer. Paleoindian stone-tool technology was sophisticated, flexible, and deeply embedded in social systems that combined practical reason with cultural meaning.

The Promise of the Future

We know a great deal about the Paleoindians of the Midwest, but the gaps in our knowledge are larger still. Fortunately, future directions of research are easily assayed. We must learn even more about local habitats, which will require coordination with the botanists and paleontologists. We must do more geological mapping of bedrock and other chert sources to better gauge the abundance and distribution of the raw materials from which Paleoindians fashioned their stone tools. Only then can we estimate the ranges over which groups traveled and the relationship between the toolstone supplies and their consumption of them. We must selectively excavate more sites, and on a large scale. Especially important will be careful excavation of hearths and other features, in particular those in which tools are found, for the charcoal samples that will reveal more of paleoenvironments and serve for radiocarbon dating. Some features might also yield burned animal bones that will tell us more about the Paleoindian diets. In plowzone sites, we must use machines that excavate efficiently but quickly, and selectively collect stone tools from the soil removed. As we enter the 21st century, we continue to excavate inefficiently using tools of Medieval origin. Midwestern farmers long since abandoned similar tools for the efficiency of modern machinery.

Working with geomorphologists, we must identify buried landforms in river valleys and elsewhere, and sample them with deep excavations using power equipment. As we accumulate more tool assemblages, we must analyze them with the best techniques that alone will reveal their complex variations.

Most important of all, we must look more systematically for sites across the vast landscape, most of it farmland. Much-by no means all-of the land surface is the same the Paleoindians trod. Many sites lie on or near the surface. As a practical matter, such sites will always be the most common and therefore most important components of the archeological record. Because Paleo land use was a large-scale enterprise, our surveys must be of commensurate scale. They must be sustained over at least several years to account for the complicating effects of annual cultivation. Ideally, surveys should be part of a coordinated effort across the Midwest such that, for instance, we survey concurrently and using similar methods in Iowa and Ohio, Minnesota and Indiana.

Rightly, American archeology today is eager to enhance public understanding of our past. Arguably one of the greatest opportunities ahead is for collaboration between professionals and lay people (see sidebar next page). Most Paleoindian artifacts are in private hands, often in collections compiled from one's own and neighboring farms. Yet professionals have the widest knowledge of the Paleoindian record and the cultures that produced it. The checkered history of lay-professional relations must be put behind us. Working together, all persons committed to the responsible study of Paleoindian cultures will ensure future growth in our knowledge of the most remote American past.

For more information, contact Dr. Michael J. Shott, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50614, (319) 273-7377, fax (319) 273-7104, e-mail shott@csbs.csbs.uni.edu.

Select References

Fisher, Daniel C., "Mastodont Procurement by Paleoindians of the Great Lakes Region: Hunting or Scavenging?" in The Evolution of Human Hunting, M. Nitecki and D. Nitecki, eds., New York: Plenum, 1987, pp. 309-421.

Haynes, Gary, Mammoths, Mastodonts, and Elephants: Biology, Behavior, and the Fossil Record, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

King, James E. and Jeffrey J. Saunders, "Environmental Insularity and the Extinction of the American Mastodont," in Quaternary Extinctions: A Prehistoric Revolution, P. Martin and R. Klein, eds., Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1984, pp. 315-339.

Mason, Ronald J. and Carol Irwin, "An Eden-Scottsbluff Burial in Northeastern Wisconsin," American Antiquity vol. 26 (1960): pp. 43-57.

Morrow, Juliet E., "The Organization of Early Paleoindian Lithic Technology in the Confluence Region of the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Washington University, St. Louis, 1996.

Morrow, Juliet E. and Toby A. Morrow, "Fluted Point Complexes in the Midwest: A Technological and Morphological Perspective," paper presented at the 41st Midwest Archaeological Conference, South Beloit, Illinois, 1996.

Overstreet, David F., Chesrow: A Paleoindian Complex in the Southern Lake Michigan Basin, Milwaukee, WI: Great Lakes Archaeological Press, 1993.

"Still More on Cultural Contexts of Mammoth and Mastodon in the Southwestern Lake Michigan Basin," Current Research in the Pleistocene vol. 13 (1996): pp. 36-38.