Paleo-Indian Period - 10,000 to 14,500 Years Ago

First Inhabitants

Although very little is known about the Paleo-Indian period, the evidence for man’s presence in North America around this time is overwhelming. Traces of the Old World Upper Paleolithic culture from many archeological sites in the New World indicate that this region was populated during this time by the people whom we call Paleo-Indians. However, despite careful excavation of numerous sites, archeologists are still uncertain about the Paleo-Indian tradition and everyday life. This is mainly due to the lack of organic artifacts which could not withstand the passage of time.
Various styles of Paleoindian stone points and an example spear foreshaft
Various style of Paleo-Indian stone points with age ranging from 11,000 - 7,000 BCE were found at Russell Cave: Beaver Pond point, Dalton point, Stanfield point/knife, Dalton (or Quad) point, and Allen point (from left to right). Stone point hafted on foreshaft (below).

NPS Photo

Flintknapping, a stone tool shaping technique invented by ancestors that existed long ago, plays a major role in the lives of the Paleo-Indian people. Spear points were crafted by striking a piece of chert or flint methodically. Each stone point would take a considerable amount of time and effort to complete. One of the earliest examples of such a tool is the Clovis point, a large, lance-shaped spear point with the flute (a groovelike flaking scar) extending one-fifth to one-third of the way up the face(s) of the blade from the base. The edges on both sides of the base were purposefully dulled to prevent the bindings from being cut when the point was being hafted (or attached) to a foreshaft. These foreshafts were probably set into a socketed wooden spear handle, allowing it to be thrust into an animal and then pulled free, leaving the foreshaft imbedded in the animal's flesh. In the later part of the Paleo-Indian period in the Southeast region, the lance-like shape and fluting became less prominent, while the bases became increasingly concave, often resulting in flaring "ears". Examples of these points are the Quad and Dalton points, which are very similar in shape and size.
Peccary teeth and illustration on top and flint scrappers on bottom
Tooth (top) of the peccary (illustration shown), now extinct in the Southeast, were found at Russell Cave. Stone knives and scrappers (bottom) that would've been used for butchering meat were also found.

NPS Photo

Upon arriving in the New World, the Paleo-Indian people entered a hunter's paradise. The land was filled with large game such as mammoth, giant ground sloth, and peccary, as well as prehistoric camel, horse, and bison species, all of which are now extinct in the Southeast region. These animals had no prior experience with people and therefore, had no behavioral adaptations against the hunters. This made them easy targets for the hunters. A favorite hunting strategy is thought to have been creeping up on a large mammal and wounding it with their socketed spears, leaving the foreshaft imbedded. Afterwards, the hunters would re-arm their spears, follow the wounded animal, and harass it until it tired to the point that they could safely make the kill. Another popular hunting technique utilized by the inhabitants was stampeding a herd of animals over a cliff or into a gully to their death. This method was especially effective in feeding the group for a long period of time. It is suspected that hunting methods such as this contributed to the extinction of these large mammals. There is no doubt that the Paleo-Indian people were superb big game hunters, but they may have also relied on smaller game and wild vegetables for food. This is harder to determine since the remains of smaller animals and vegetation do not endure the passage of time as well as the remains of larger animals.

Due to the lack of variety in artifacts, we know relatively little about the Paleo-Indian culture. However, archeologists were able to discover new facts about the inhabitants when they unearthed two individual’s remains buried with many artifacts including stone points and bone foreshafts. The foreshafts were found to have been intentionally broken before they were laid in the grave. The bodies and the artifacts also had red ochre (made of silica and clay) sprinkled on top of them. From this discovery, archeologists can infer that the Paleo-Indians participated in rituals as a mean of coping with death and they may have had some notion of an afterlife.

Russell Cave National Monument

Last updated: January 25, 2022