Paleo-Indians among the Loess Hills

We human beings, known to science as Homo sapiens, seem to have originated in the Old World, possibly in Africa. Early forms of man, such as Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and the Neanderthal subspecies of our own species never set foot in the Americas.

Thus, the first humans on our side of the world were not grossly hairy, bent-over, knuckle-dragging, beetle-browed brutes; they were fundamentally like ourselves. Though their thinking was surely much different from our own, their brains were just as capable -- as well-wired -- as ours. Given upbringings similar to our own, they could have learned to browse the internet as deftly as any of us.

There are hints that people may have entered the Americas as early as 30,000 years ago, or even before. However, to date, most anthropologists say that man's presence in the Americas can only be proved as far back as about 12,000 years ago.

During the Ice Age about 20,000 years ago, the glacier to the north was just beginning to melt and recede. It was sending unimaginable torrents of meltwater downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mississippi River was a huge system of interconnecting and shifting channels coursing over sand and gravel.

Even though 20,000 years ago the glacier was melting, it still formed a barrier for human migration from the Old World to the Americas, and it seems to have continued doing so until around 15,000 years ago. During this time so much of the earth's water was locked up in the world's glaciers that the earth's sea level was considerably lower than it is now. The U.S.'s coastlines extended farther into the seas than they do now, the Mississippi River's delta extended farther south into the Gulf than now, and, more important to our story, dry land united Asia's Siberia and America's Alaska, where today the sea known as the Bering Strait lies. In other words, during the Ice Age, humans could walk from Asia into the Americas.

An important point about the glacier's melting is that its face did not recede northward along an even front. In fact, it is believed that some 15,000 years ago the glacier actually divided itself into two main blocks. The largest ice sheet centered over today's Hudson Bay, and the smaller occupied the Canadian Rockies in the West. Between them, an ice-free corridor opened up. And it is through this corridor that the first Americans may have wandered southward into the future United States, and beyond.

Thus, some 15,000 years ago there may have been an epoch-making "window of opportunity." Enough of the glacier remained intact for the landbridge between Siberia and Alaska to exist, yet enough of the glacier had already melted that a corridor between two massive North American ice sheets opened up.

Once humans arrived on our continent, they wasted little time in moving southward. Evidence of human activity has been dated at Fell's Cave in southern Chile, South America, at around 11,000 years ago; remains at Los Toldos Cave not far away in Argentina are dated at around 12,000 years. Some of these people's recent ancestors very well may have passed by or lived for a while in our loess zone.

In non-technical conversation, these ancient people are generally referred to as "Paleo-Indians," the "Paleo" being a shortened form of the word Paleolithic. Paleo-Indians did not fit many of the stereotypes we have today of early American Indians. They did not shoot arrows with bows, did not live in tepees, hogans, or long-houses, and did not even gather themselves in permanent settlements. They had no bows and arrows because their technology was not advanced enough to produce them. They did not live in year-round homes because they had to travel very frequently in order to find new game to kill, wild roots to dig, berries to pick, etc. They did not practice agriculture; they were hunters and gatherers.

Among the Ice-Age animals they hunted were mammoths, camels, horses, and bison. They may have killed many large animals by driving them over cliffs, but they also had formidable spears. Their spears were equipped with sharp, well crafted stone points often around two inches long but sometimes as long as nine inches, and typically chipped from chunks of the siliceous mineral called chert. The knappers of these points characteristically chipped shallow grooves into the point's tops, where the split ends of the spear's wooden shaft would fit, before being tied and secured. These shallow grooves are referred to as flutes. Some fluted spear points are so outlandishly large and beautifully crafted that it is easy to believe they must have been ceremonial in function, not used for hunting. The US National Park Service has a nice web page on Paleoindians.

Paleo-Indians left artifacts other than fluted spear-points. They produced "burins" or "gravers" used for carving wood and stone, stone scrapers and other blades, and knives. It's quite possible that they also knew how to throw their spears with the help of the atlatl, or spear thrower, a sort of stick that added power to every throw. It functioned on the same principle that causes a ball hit with a long-handled tennis racket to sail farther than one hit with a pingpong paddle. Fragments of woven and braided sandals, ropes, and fabrics of paleo-Indian age have been recovered from certain dry caves and rock shelters. Skins were surely sewn with animal sinew, bone needles, and awls.

In the early 1800's, quite a stir was created when an ancient human pelvis was found in Mammoth Bayou on the northern side of Natchez. Not far from the pelvis lay bones of extinct Ice-Age mammals, such as those of a ground-sloth, so immediately many experts thought that the remains of an Ice-Age paleo-hunter had been found, perhaps lying next to the animals who had killed him. Others believed the pelvis to be much younger, and to have washed next to the animals from much younger strata upslope. The individual who provided the pelvis soon became famous, and referred to in archeology books as "Natchez Man."

Of course, once carbon-14 dating became available, the question could be settled at last. Results: Ground sloth bones found near "Natchez Man" were about 17,840 years old, while the man's pelvis was "only" 5,580 years old. "Natchez Man" was old, but he was not a Paleo-Indian.

In fact, to date no Paleo-Indian points have been found in our loess zone, but it's probable that Paleo Indians have been here, or at least in the vicinity. Sites around us producing fluted points include Wells Creek in Tennessee, Kimmswick in Missouri, and Domebo in Oklahoma.

Remains left behind by the Paleo-Indians are so scanty that it is very hard to know what their lives were like. Any living in the Loess Hills must be visualized as existing in a climate and ecology much different from what we have now. We can imagine the men periodically forming hunting parties to go after large Ice-Age animals such as mammoths and bison. We can be sure that on the hunt they carried their spears and probably talismans they hoped would protect them. The possibility of their being injured or killed on such hunts must have been so great that each hunt was preceded by considerable spiritual preparation, perhaps by making sacrifices, praying before whatever gods they had, and exercising what magic their shaman could muster.

Women and children may have been responsible for providing most of the actual bulk of the people's diet, by gathering herbs, nuts, wild fruits, digging roots, and catching small animals such as frogs, turtles, birds, and rabbits.

Like other hunter-gatherer cultures, Paleo-Indians probably lived nomadic existences, following the big game and perhaps moving on a seasonal basis to known locations where certain nuts or fruits were coming into season. There may have been favorite camping areas returned to year after year.

But even if the Paleo-Indians managed to return to a favorite camping spot, living could not have been easy. Life among the Paleo-Indians must have been brief, but intense. One can imagine the fierce pleasure experienced seeing sunrise after a night of raw coldness and unknown sounds of animal or spirits -- of smelling warm spring mud after spending a hard winter, or of smelling sweet plum blossoms in a world where clothing seldom was washed, plumbing did not carry away human excreta, and where the deer killed three days ago reeks of decay, but is the only thing left to eat.

The Paleo-Indian period in North America began when the first Paleo-Indians filtered south at the end of the last Ice Age some 12,000 years ago, and ended approximately 8,000 years ago, when the last of the large Ice Age mammals succumbed to extinction. Possibly Paleo-Indians hunted some of the large mammals to extinction, but, more likely, in post Ice-Age times the big animals simply could not compete with the smaller, more efficient species better adapted for living in warmer times.

Whatever caused the great Ice-Age mammals to vanish, the Paleo-Indian manner of living vanished with them.

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