Archeology and Ethnography Program
National Park Service
Looking for Landmarks
Over 40 years ago specialists led by archeologist H. Marie Wormington nominated the first earliest American sites as National Historic Landmarks. That pioneering initiative—which mirrored the then-prevailing view of the first inhabitants as big game hunters on the western prairies—bestowed landmark status on New Mexico’s Clovis and Folsom sites, along with nine other properties, all west of the Mississippi Valley.
But the western focus left gaps in understanding as well as representation. The study underpinning this web site–which casts a net for landmarks east of the Mississippi–promises to change that. Discoveries by interdisciplinary teams are shining new light on Ice Age human ecology. Recovery of fish scales, charred nutshells, and other delicate plant and animal remains permit detailed reconstructions of what people ate and how their bodies endured the environmental tumult of the Ice Age.
Thanks to advances in radiocarbon dating, changes in culture can be plotted with increasing precision. Although questions remain, archeologists now have clearer ideas of where the newcomers lived, how they used the land, and how their use of resources shaped their cultures.
So far, these research innovations have led to the nomination of nine landmarks (including Virginia’s Thunderbird Archeological District, Mississippi’s Hester site, and North Carolina’s Hardaway site) and the listing of seventy properties on the National Register of Historic Places, two-thirds in the East.
Recent research also reveals the need to update past designations to reflect current developments. This study, by providing contexts for nominating sites as landmarks, aims to expand knowledge as well as protect the precious evidence of this elusive ancient era.
The new data challenge ideas of when and how the first people arrived and how they adapted to the Ice Age climate. Far from simply hunting big game, they survived in flexible ways, taking advantage of a range of resources. “A new consensus has emerged that in a rapidly changing and diverse environment, one eats what is available,” says University of Massachusetts archeologist Dena Dincauze.
Despite the growing potential for discovery, this fragile record faces daunting challenges. Museums struggle to care for existing collections, making them available for public exhibits, scholars, and Indian people. Public land managers try to raise awareness as they confront the threats posed by erosion, development, casual collectors, and looters.
By providing a framework for nominating new landmarks, the study hopes to foster a focus on preserving and interpreting this legacy for today’s Americans.
Search for the Big Game Hunters
Archeological findings during the first half of the 20th century in the American West fostered a notion that the first people were predominantly big game hunters roaming the prairies in search of prey. Unfortunately, this interpretation, grafted onto the rest of the continent, skewed ideas of when the newcomers arrived, what route they took, and whether they wiped out large mammals like mastodons. New finds and techniques could clarify these issues.
The Northeast: No site in the Northeast has yielded evidence of the dramatic herd-kills that point to big game hunting. Certainly humans were a major new predator on the scene, which is affirmed by burned animal bone found at some sites. But discoveries of charred nutshells and fish bones at Pennsylvania’s Shawnee-Minisink site suggest that people in the region were flexible about how they got their food.
Small animals—birds, rabbits, fish, turtles—were likely essential to survival, along with edible plants. Deer, moose, and elk were available, as were caribou, though not in big herds. There is no clear evidence of Paleoindians hunting large animals like the mammoth in the northeastern region.
The Southeast: In the Southeast, large Ice Age mammals were present, but archeologists aren’t certain if hunters wiped them out. In Florida’s Waucissa River, the skull of an extinct bison was found with a stone point broken off in its forehead. A giant land tortoise, apparently speared with a stake, was also discovered in the Southeast.
Other animal remains, including mammoth bones with butchering marks, have been found too. The evidence suggests that people gradually abandoned a toolkit geared to hunting. Had they given up on a dwindling resource?
The southeastern region offered many paths to survival, with a range of plants and animals to be had.
The Midwest: Though mastodons were abundant in the early Midwest, little evidence links them to humans (except at the Kimmswick site near St. Louis). Michael Shott, an archeologist at the University of Northern Iowa, says proof may be elusive because “acid soils do horrible things to bones.”
At one point in the era, the climate suddenly became severely cold and dry, temporarily halting the glacial retreat. This reordered the plant world, which proved to be bad news for large-bodied, narrowly adapted mammals like the mammoth. “Instead of inquiring whether people extinguished them,” Shott says, “we may easily wonder how they persisted so long.”
rofile of the First People
The Larger Story
The nuances of stone tools–what they look like and where they’re found—speak volumes about the first Americans, says University of Northern Iowa archeologist Michael Shott. Yet tools, he says, “were useful to the Paleoindians but they didn’t organize their life around them as we do our analysis.” Their world was made up of other materials too. The stone points were part of larger tools that included wood, fiber, sinew, and bone. Stone was a relatively small part of the material culture.
“We focus on stone because that’s what’s left,” says Shott. “The Paleoindians would probably laugh themselves silly to see the time and effort we spend hunched over our work tables measuring their projectile points.”
ost scholars think America’s first people arrived before 15,000 years ago, likely from northeast Asia, but there is a lively debate about exactly when, how, and from where in northeast Asia. They were modern biologically; there is no evidence for earlier humans like Neanderthals in the New World.
It’s a misconception to think of the first people as noble hunters in harmony with the environment. This obscures the complex realities of life in ancient North America. They were tough, resilient, and ingenious, and survived by exploiting their surroundings.
The first people were nomadic. Many archeologists think they traveled in small groups, following game, harvesting what they needed from the land, and moving on. As groups moved into areas, they likely established a pattern of cyclic movement linked to the seasonal availability of resources. When an area filled to capacity, some groups moved on to colonize new regions.
From the north, they would have threaded their way through glacial wilderness, encountering tundra at the waning edge of the ice, then forests as they continued south. Some, perhaps the earliest immigrants, probably traveled south along the western coast of the Americas. Many of the places where they stopped are now submerged due to sea level rise since glacial times. Modern animals were in evidence amidst creatures in the twilight of their existence, like mammoths, mastodons, saber tooth tigers, giant beavers, and other species. Some suggest that humans hastened their demise; recent research offers new insight.
What little is left from the era is all scholars have to determine the details of the past. For years, it was largely a story of stone tools–seemingly all that had survived thousands of years in the soil. Today, with a wider range of researchers and techniques, the remnants of food remains and plant matter are giving a clearer picture of the material life of the first Americans.
A Lasting Debt
Paleoindians created the institutions of lineage and society that later cultures inherited and transformed in their turn. They forged a political landscape where none existed before, probably investing the major natural features of their environment with symbolic meaning. They must have negotiated boundaries among neighboring groups, and altered those boundaries as their numbers grew and their institutions changed. They established the first economy–of raw materials like chert, wood, leather, and sources of food like caribou and deer. They developed technology that was sophisticated, flexible, and deeply embedded in a social world that combined practical reason with cultural meaning. Their story is an important one.