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2.1 Paleo-Indians

Paleo-Indians (Paleoindians or Paleoamericans) is a term given to the first peoples who entered, and subsequently inhabited, the American continent during the final glacial episodes of the late Pleistocene period. The prefix “paleo” comes from the Greek meaning “old.” The term Paleo-Indians applies specifically to the lithic period in the Western Hemisphere and is distinct from the term Paleolithic.

Evidence suggests big-game hunters crossed the Bering Strait from Asia (Eurasia) into North America over a land bridge (Beringia), that existed between 45,000 BC and 12,000 BC. Small isolated groups of hunter-gatherers migrated alongside herds of large herbivores far into Alaska. Between 16,500 BC and 13,500 BC, ice-free corridors developed along the Pacific coast and valleys of North America. These corridors allowed animals, followed by humans, to migrate south into the interior. The people went on foot or used primitive boats along the coastline. The precise dates and routes of these migrations are still in discussion.

Scientific evidence links indigenous Americas to Asian peoples, specifically eastern Siberian populations. Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been linked to North Asian populations by linguistic dialects, the distribution of blood types, and in genetic composition as reflected by molecular data, such as DNA. Around 8,000 BC to 7,000 BC the climate stabilized, leading to a rise in population and lithic technology advances, resulting in a more sedentary lifestyle.

Some tools (caribou scrapers) found in Alaska were dated to be from 27,000 BC. Palaeontologists have found some tools (scrapers, knife, flint, choppers and spear points) in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico that date from 25,000 BC. Anthropologists named the human residents according to where specific tools were found: Sandia, Clovis, Folson, Plano, etc. The Clovis-era humans were the more numerous and Clovis stone points have been found in every continental states of the USA.

By 12,000 BC the Paleo-Indians had settled in all ice-free land of North and South America following shore-land and inland migration routes. Example of first settlements are:

–    Lindermeier, Colorado, the first Paleo-Indian site to be studied; it dates from 11,000 BC. These first inhabitants lived a nomadic life, collected wild plants and hunted large game.
–    The site of Saugus, Massachusetts, dates from 10,000 BC where hearth charcoal and stone tools of that period were found at what is now the “Saugus iron Works Historic Site”. The Indians lived there for 10,000 years.
–    Human fossil remains dated to 10,000 BC were found near the pyramids of Teotihuacán, Mexico, show that Mexico City was settled at that time.

The glaciers melted and the Bering passage disappeared between 10,000 and 7,000 BC stopping the migrations from Siberia. As the climate changed in a drastic way in North America, the big mammals became extinct and the Indian hunters had to change their life pattern. Examples of these changes are:

–    The inhabitants of south central Mexico, in the valley of Tehuacán, are believed to be the first to grow a wild grass called teosinte. New strains evolved into maize or corn.
–    Many settlements dated from the period between 9,000 and 8,500 BC have been found in many parts of the USA.
–    Bones found in Bison Hill, Texas, suggest that herds of bison were driven over a cliff or into an Arroyo, surrounded and killed. These bisons belonged to the big mammal families of the Ice Age and lived in big herds.
–    The sites suggest that a migration route along the coast to Southern California, across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas then north through Illinois and the Great Lakes up to the Atlantic Coast.

The ice retreated and the climate warmed around 7,000 BC and big changes in flora and fauna occurred in North America. As a result:

–    Big mammals began to die, the tundra changed itself into grassland prairies, and jungles appeared in Mexico and woodland spread from the Atlantic coast inland to the Midwest.
–    Settlements dating from 6,000 BC show a large range of tools, basketry, sandals, smoking pipes, seashell ornaments, bird bone whistles, trade goods and burial relics.
–    People of the so-called Encinitas Culture lived in Southern California from around 5,500 to 1,000 BC. Grinding stones and shells suggest an economy based on the sea.
–    The first cultivation of maize started in 5,000 BC in Tehuacán valley, central Mexico.
–    The climate stabilization that occurred around 8,000 to 7,000 BC, led to a rise in population and lithic technology advances, resulting in a more sedentary lifestyle.

Stone tools, particularly projectile points and scrapers, are the primary evidence of the earliest human activity in the Americas. Crafted lithic flaked tools are used by archaeologists and anthropologists to classify cultural periods.

2.1.1 Migration into the Americas

Map of early human migrations based on the Out-of-Africa theory
(Click to enlarge)

The details of Paleo-Indian migration to and throughout the Americas, including the exact dates and routes travelled, are subject to ongoing research and discussion.

The traditional theory is that these early migrants moved into the Beringia land bridge between eastern Siberia and present-day Alaska around 40,000 — 17,000 years ago, when sea levels were significantly lower due to the Quaternary glaciation. These people are believed to have followed herds of now-extinct Pleistocene mega fauna along ice-free corridors that stretched between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets.

Another route proposed is that, either on foot or using primitive boats, they migrated down the Pacific coast to South America. Evidence of the latter would since have been covered by a sea level rise of hundreds of meters following the last ice age. However, older alternative theories exist, including migration from Europe.

2.1.2 Lithic period

Sites in Alaska (East Beringia) -like Dry Creek and Healy Lake- are where the earliest evidence has been found of Paleo-Indians (Chukchi people), followed by archaeological sites in northern British Columbia, western Alberta, and the Old Crow Flats region in the Yukon. The Paleo-Indian would eventually spread all over the Americans, primarily in the Great Plains of the United States and Canada, with offshoots as far east as the Gaspé Peninsula on the Atlantic coast, and as far south as Chile, Monte Verde. These peoples spread over a wide geographical area and had regional variations in lifestyles. However, they all shared a common style of stone tool production, making knapping styles and progress identifiable. These lithic reduction tool adaptations have been found across the Americas, utilized by highly mobile bands consisting of approximately 20 to 50 members of an extended family. Hunting and gathering bands usually have no tribal chiefs. The men and women who earned the respect of the group because of their abilities at hunting, healing, or providing some other needed goods or services led the bands. The elders (the average life span was 30–35 years) were highly valued for their experience and knowledge. Food was plentiful during the few warm months of the year. Lakes and rivers were teeming with many species of fish, birds and aquatic mammals. Nuts, berries and edible roots could be found in the forests and marshes. In the fall foodstuffs would have to be stored and clothing made ready for the winter. During the winter, coastal fishing groups moved inland to hunt and trap fresh food and furs.

Traditional Wigwam

Late ice age climatic changes caused plant and animal populations to change. Groups of people moved from place to place as resources were depleted and new supplies were sought. Small bands hunted and gathered during the spring and summer months, then broke into smaller direct family groups for the fall and winter. Family groups moved every 3–6 days, possibly covering up to 360 km a year. Many groups of peoples lived in wigwam-like structures made of frame poles and covered with bark slabs or animal hides. This type of housing was easy to build, or move, and could be heated with a small fire near the centre of the structure. Diets were often sustaining and rich in protein due to successful hunting. Clothing was made from a variety of small and mid size animal hides. During much of the Paleo-Indian period, inland bands are thought to have subsisted primarily through hunting now-extinct mega fauna. The Clovis culture, appearing around 11,500 BC, did not rely exclusively on mega fauna for subsistence. Instead, they employed a mixed strategy that included smaller terrestrial game, aquatic animals, and a variety of flora.

Paleo-Indian groups were efficient hunters and carried a variety of tools. These included highly efficient fluted style spear points, as well as micro blades used for butchering and hide processing

A Folsom Point — from the Paleo-indian Lithic ...
A Folsom Point from the Paleo-indian Lithic stage (Wikipedia)

Trade routes have been found from the British Columbia Interior to the coast of California. The glaciers that covered the northern half of the continent began to gradually melt, exposing new land. At the same time, world wide extinctions among the large mammals began. In North America, camels and horses eventually died off, the latter not to reappear until the Spanish reintroduced the species near the end of the 15th century AD. As this was happening the late Paleo-Indian would have relied more on other means of subsistence pattern.

Around 10,500 BC — 9,500 BC, the big game hunters of the great plains begun to focus on a single animal species: the bison (an early cousin of the American Bison). Folsom peoples travelled in small family groups for most of the year, returning yearly to the same springs and other favoured locations on higher ground. There, they would camp for a few days, perhaps erecting a temporary shelter, making and/or repairing some stone tools, or processing some meat, then moving on. The Paleo-Indian way of life gradually disappeared; groups like the El Abra took to supplementing their food resources with bean, fish and seasonally wild vegetables. Paleo-Indian were not numerous and population densities were quite low. Although some groups continued as big game hunters, hunting traditions became more varied and meat procurement methods more sophisticated.

2.1.3   Post-lithic Periods

In the Archaic stage (8000 BC — 1,000 BC), the changing environment featured a warmer more arid climate. This caused the disappearance of the last mega fauna and great coniferous forests, forcing a new way of life for the inhabitants. Remnant groups of Paleo-Indians were absorbed by new advanced cultures that had developed in surrounding areas. Groups of peoples like the ancestors of the Fuegians and Patagonians are now working with specialized toolkits, some adapted to a semi-maritime way of life. Archaic period tools and implements are made of stone, bone, wood and plant fibbers. However unlike their predecessors, percussion-chipped tools from quartz cobbles are sometimes retouched with elaborate carvings. Peckes, ground stones and wood-working tools were also a significant addition to Archaic stage toolkits. The placement of artefacts and materials within an Archaic burial site indicated a social differentiation based upon status.

In the formative stage (Pre-Classic) (2,000 BC — 500 AD), the “Neo-Indian” cultures like Tiwanaku, Olmec, Zapotec, Thule and Mississippian start to develop. This regional adaptations would in-time become the norm, with reliance less on hunting and gathering, but more on a mixed economy of small game and harvested plant foods. In the western plains, groups moved toward the mountain valleys and shifted from nomadic hunting to more permanent base hunting. The eastern groups had turned to a mixed economy with far more dependence on vegetable foods and small game (deer and rabbits). In the bottleneck of Central America (Mesoamerica), agricultural advancements allowed the higher costs of more permanent residence to accumulate faster than the north. Metals -copper among them- were beginning to be used in the production of utilitarian tools such as fish gaffs and adzes.

Through the Classic period (100 AD — 1,200 AD), decorative objects such as beads and other ornaments reached their apex of complexity alongside Mesoamerican architecture.

Cultures of the Post-Classic stage typically dates from 1200 AD to modern times. The time period is defined distinctly by cultures possessing developed metallurgy, social organization involving complex urbanism and militarism systems. Ideologically, Post-Classic cultures like the Aztec are described as showing a tendency towards the secularization of society.

2.1.4 Genetics

The genetic pattern indicates that Indigenous Amerindians experienced two very distinctive genetic episodes:

–    First with the initial-peopling of the Americas
–    Secondly with European colonization of the Americas.

Human settlement of the New World occurred in stages from the Bering Sea coast line. The micro-satellite diversity and distributions of the Y lineage specific to South America indicates that certain Amerindian populations have been isolated since the initial colonization of the region. The Na-Dené, Inuit and Indigenous Alaskan people exhibit haplogroup Q (Y-DNA) mutations are distinct from other indigenous Amerindians with various mtDNA mutations. This suggests that the earliest migrants into the northern extremes of North America and Greenland derived from later migrant populations.