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The Paleo-Indians

The earliest arrivals

The earliest arrivals and their physical and cultural descendants, collectively called "Paleo-Indians" (meaning "ancient" Indians), appear to have occupied the Americas, including the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, for 10,000 to perhaps 40,000 years – a period of time longer than that for all the succeeding cultures combined. They left a minimal and fragmentary record of their lives. The search for evidence of Paleo-Indians compares to a hunt for ghosts in a dense fog.

Probably throughout their history, the Paleo-Indians moved as nomadic bands across the landscape in response to the rhythm of the seasons and the availability of resources. Carrying their belongings on their backs, they traveled by foot in extended families of perhaps two dozen individuals, including grandparents, descendants, in-laws and a few children. Over time, bands scattered widely, throughout the Americas. They took shelter where they could find it, sometimes in rocky depressions like Pendejo Cave. They could have built rudimentary brush and skin shelters. Undoubtedly, they often slept in the open. They clothed their bodies with animal skins and plant fibers. Some evidence suggests that, like contemporary Asian and European cultures, the Paleo-Indians may have sprinkled ground hematite – ochre-colored iron ore – over their dead before burial as part of some unknown funereal ritual.

For thousands of years, they survived by foraging, possibly without even spear points for hunting. They may have trapped or bludgeoned smaller game. Bands may have gathered to drive big game herds over cliffs, killing many of the animals in a single event. Opportunists, they preyed on newborn, crippled, wounded, sick and aging animals. They appropriated fresh predatory animal kills. They harvested, processed and cooked edible plant seeds, roots and fruits. They probably ate insects, including the larvae.

earlyman The Paleo-Indians made simple stone tools, using "flint knapping," or stone chipping, techniques similar to those of ancient people in northeastern Siberia to shape raw flint and chert into crude chopping, cutting, gouging, hammering and scraping tools. They fashioned other crude tools, including pointed implements, from the bones of animals. They used flat milling stones to process plant foods, grinding seeds, for example, into flour. They made other tools and camp and personal gear from sources such as wood, plant fibers, mammoth and mastodon tusks, large animal horns and intestines, but most such artifacts have perished and disappeared over time.

At some point, maybe 12,000 or 15,000 years ago, the Paleo-Indians invented or borrowed (possibly from eastern Siberian cultures) the revolutionary idea of using spears with stone points in the hunt. Armed with tipped spears, the Paleo-Indians changed over time, from primarily foragers into primarily big game hunters, preying on the Ice Age mastodons, mammoths, long-horned bison, horses, camels and giant sloths. Simultaneously, they raised the craft of flint knapping to a new level, producing some of the most beautifully worked stone projectile points and tools in all of American prehistory. They often used flint from stone quarries hundreds of miles distant, presumably having acquired the raw flint or chert through trade. Spear points would become the Paleo-Indian big game hunting cultures’ signature artifact.

Likely, hunters often laid in wait near a lake or a bog for quarry to come to water. Seldom able to inflict a fatal first strike with spears, they would have used their weapons to wound a big animal like a mastodon or a mammoth, and they would have tracked and harried the failing animal, continuing to inflict wounds as opportunities arose until they finally brought their quarry down. A hunter probably threw his spear as a projectile or used it as a lance to drive it into an animal’s flesh. Conceivably, he used a device called a throwing stick, or atlatl, to hurl his spear with greater propulsive force. (We know with certainty that later prehistoric hunters used the atlatl.)

Dangerous business and hard work, killing a mastodon or a mammoth with a spear, but it would have yielded a high profit: abundant meat, skin, ivory, bone, sinew, gut. Like the historic Plains Indians who preyed on the modern buffalo, the Paleo-Indians wasted little of a big game animal’s carcass.

The spear points labeled as "Clovis" and "Folsom" rank among the most well known of Paleo-Indian artifacts. The Clovis points, approximately 2 _- to 5-inch long, lanceolate-shaped, with a concave base and partially grooved, or "fluted," sides, were first discovered, in association with Ice Age animals, at the famous Paleo-Indian Blackwater Draw site in eastern New Mexico, a few miles south of the city of Clovis. Possibly the oldest of the known Paleo-Indian spear tips, the 12,000- to 15,000-year-old Clovis points have since been found not only throughout our western deserts but across the northern hemisphere. Folsom points, similar to the Clovis points but generally smaller and more exquisitely made, were first discovered, in association with Ice Age bison bones, in northeast New Mexico, near the small community of Folsom. About 10,000 years old, Folsom points have been found most frequently on the Great Plains, but they occur in our western deserts as well. My wife, working with an archaeological team out of Fort Bliss, found a Folsom point on the eastern flank of the Franklin Mountains in far west Texas some years ago.

Based on the spear points, the other artifacts, extinct big game associations, site distributions and other evidence, archaeologists have postulated that the Paleo-Indian bands wandered, not aimlessly over the landscape, but in annual circuits. Bands would time their moves to capitalize on the seasonal availability of game and edible plants and the need for winter shelter. Individuals owned little, no more than they could carry in a move. Bands interacted with neighboring bands, hunting, trading, intermarrying, gossiping. They maintained a broad, if slow, communications network as evidenced by the continent-wide distribution of similar spear points. They became master naturalists as a matter of survival, intimately acquainted with the seasons and the animal and plant life of their environment. They buried their friends and relatives with love and care. They changed slowly over thousands of years, like the Ice Age glaciers.

We may never be sure of when or how the Paleo-Indians came to the Americas or what routes they followed across the continents, for example, into southwestern America and northern Mexico. We can do little more than guess about such things as their beliefs, their spirituality, their celebrations, their rituals, their medicines, their mournings, their music, their dance, their band structures, their language, their family relationships or their child rearing. Artifacts seldom speak clearly to those dimensions of life. The Paleo-Indians, who finally faded from the American scene some 8000 to 9000 years ago, are likely to remain as elusive as shadows in the night in American archaeology.


There is an extensive number of books about the Native American peoples of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. One of the better summaries about the Paleo-Indians appears in Gordon R. Willey’s An Introduction to American Archaeology, Volume One, North and Middle America. There are Native American museums, many of them with Paleo-Indian exhibits, across the Southwest in the larger (and many smaller) cities, at universities, at national and state park visitor centers and on the Indian reservations.

The famed Blackwater Draw site, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Blackwater Draw Museum are located off Highway 70, between Clovis and Portales in eastern New Mexico. You can visit the site on certain days during the spring and fall. You can visit the museum, which has excellent Paleo-Indian Clovis period exhibits, throughout the year. Call the site (1-505-356-5235) or the museum (1-505-562-2202) for additional information, or check in on the Blackwater Draw Museum internet site (www.zianet.com/snm/blackwat.htm)

Jay W. Sharp

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"Paleo-Indians" (Part 1)
Desert Archaic peoples( Part 2)
Desert Archaic peoples - Spritual Quest (Part 3)
Native Americans - The Formative Period (Part 4)
Voices from the South (Part 5)
The Mogollon Basin and Range Region (Part 6)
The Mogollon - Their Magic (Part7)
Hohokam the Farmers (Part 8)
The Hohokam Signature (Part 9 )
The Anasazi (Part 10)
The Anasazi 2 (Part 11)
The Great Puebloan Abandonments (Part 12)
Paquime (Part 13)
When The Spanish Came (Part 14)
Life on the Margin (Part 15)
Life on the Margin (2) (Part 16)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 1 (Part 17)
The Athapaskan Speakers Part 2 (Part 18)
The Outside Raiders (Part 19)
The Enduring Mysteries (Part 20)
Some Sites to Visit (Final Part)

Pueblo Rebellion
Profile Of An Apache Woman
Cochise and the Bascom Affair
Geronimo's Last Hurrah
Books on Native American healing

 


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