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Advent of Humans (12,000 to 9,500 Years BP)

In 1926 near Folsom, NM, a cowboy made a fundamental discovery that changed the thinking about the antiquity of humans in the Americas. He discovered the skeleton of an extinct form of bison (Bison occidentalis) lying in an arroyo. What was remarkable about the skeleton was that it had a stone spear point located in its rib cage. This was the first reported discovery of human association with extinct Ice Age animals. This spear point style was named Folsom and believed to be at least 10,000 years old. The creation of a new point on the time line for human arrival in the Americas generated much excitement. Previously, professionals placed the earliest human in the Americas between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago (Fagan 1987).

In 1936 near Clovis, NM, a new and different spear point was discovered in association with the remains of an extinct mammoth, as was another found in 1959 at Lehner, AZ. These spear points were named Clovis. Clovis points were found in stratified soil layers below the Folsom points and radiocarbon dated at 11,340 years BP (Fagan 1987). This discovery established the Clovis culture as the earliest undisputed culture in the Americas.

It is important to understand that the arrival ofhumans in the Americas had significant impacts on vegetation and wildlife distribution, diversity, and abundance. Since the dates for humans in Eurasia and Africa precede those for the Americas, it is believed that they migrated from Eurasia to the Americas. Originally, it was widely believed that people of the Clovis culture emigrated from Siberia to the Americas via a land bridge. Glaciation lowered ocean levels exposing submerged land, creating a land bridge between Eurasia and the Americas (fig. 24.4). As the glaciers slowly retreated, an ice-free corridor was created in western Canada sometime after 13,000 years BP that could have allowed the first humans to penetrate the Americas (fig. 24.9). Recently it has been determined that this ice-free corridor was probably uninhabitable during this period, due to extremely harsh conditions. Additionally, archaeologists have not found any evidence of the Clovis culture at the time the ice-free corridor existed.

There are possibly some sites of early human habitation in both the Americas that predate the Clovis period, which has led to the speculation of a pre-Clovis culture. New theories have evolved from these speculations. The first Americans could have skirted the glaciers before 12,000 years BP by migrating along the northwest Pacific coast in small boats as they either fished or hunted marine animals. A more recent theory suggests an Atlantic Ocean route from Europe. This theory is based on lithic similarities of spear points between Clovis and those of the European culture (Anderson and Faught 1998, Parfit 2000, Roosevelt 2000).

The discovery of Clovis points in association with extinct megafauna labeled Clovis people as big-game hunters. A widespread romantized view developed of fur-clad men in pursuit of or in direct confrontation with the massive mastodon, mammoth, or giant bison. These images have changed little in the decades since the discovery of Clovis points. However, increasing archaeological evidence implies a more complex existence for these people, which is more in keeping with the complexity of human beings in general.

These early Americans, like most hunter-gatherers, were opportunists. Evidence clearly indicates they hunted the now extinct megafauna; but they also hunted many other animals, such as deer, elk, caribou, peccaries, and smaller animals like rabbits. They also took fish and gathered wild plants (Anderson and Faught 1998).

Some archaeologists have dismissed extinct megafauna hunting in the East. They believe only extant wildlife such as deer, elk, or caribou were taken. Other archaeologists believe that the Clovis culture may have developed in the Southeast (Anderson and Faught 1998). The highly complex personal stone tool kits of the southeastern and eastern Clovis people were as well developed and of identical size as those of their western Clovis cousins (Anderson and Faught 1998, Cotter 1991, Dragoo 1976, Fagan 1987). This similarity suggests that the Clovis people in the Southeast were hunting similar species of wildlife as their western cousins during the same period. Increasing archaeological association of Clovis culture with extinct fauna in the Southeast confirms this belief (Anderson and Faught 1998).

One reason for the confusion about species hunted by the Clovis culture is the belief that the vegetation of the Southeast between 12,500 to 9,500 BP was closed-canopy mesic forest with abundant rainfall during the growing season (Delcourt and Delcourt 1984). A more plausible description of the southeastern landscape is that it was an open park-like mosaic of scrubland, prairies, and savannas (Edwards and Merrill 1977). This type of habitat is required by megafauna, which indisputably lived in the Southeast. The arid climate of the late glacial period produced extensive megafauna habitat, especially on well-drained droughty soils of the Piedmont, the Sandhills, the Highland Rim, and sandy Coastal Plain soils. Some of the largest concentrations of Clovis artifacts are found in the Southeast in immediate association with these droughty areas (Anderson 1991).

Clovis hunters (12,000 to 10,500 years BP) and later Paleo-Amerindians (10,500 to 9,500 years BP) were hunter-gatherers who traveled in small mobile bands of loosely related kinsmen and functioned as a social unit for economic purposes. These small bands of about 40 people covered extensive territories in their "seasonal rounds" of food procurement. Seasonal movements were structured to optimize the procurement of food (Blanton and Sassaman 1989, Hudson 1976).

During the fall, several related bands would join for ceremonial activities and hunting. The synergistic effort of the larger unit procured large quantities of meat to be dried for winter consumption. As the fall season progressed and game dispersed due to hunting pressure, the bands also dispersed to more favorable hunting areas until the arrival of spring (Hudson 1976, Walthall 1980).

In the spring, activities included gathering of plants, fishing, and collecting shellfish (fresh water mussels). Hunting, fishing, and plant gathering continued throughout the summer.

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content: Wayne D. Carroll
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created: 4-OCT-2002
modified: 08-Dec-2013