Ancient America: Columbia River Pictographs

For more than 10,000 years Indian people have lived adjacent to the Columbia River. In the Columbia Gorge area, hundreds, if not thousands, of archaeological sites provide silent testimony to this long period of human occupation. Rock art, in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs, is found throughout the area. The area along the Columbia River from the present-day city of The Dalles to the confluence of the John Day River with the Columbia River contains one of the largest collections of rock art in North America. Archaeologists James Keyser, Michael Taylor, George Poetschat, and David Kaiser, in their book Visions in the Mist: The Rock Art of Celilo Falls, report:

“More than 100 individual rock art sites have been found and recorded in the area and others are discovered each year. The smallest of these are single images but the largest contain more than 1,000 different motifs.”

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Ancient America: American Indians at Rancho La Brea

For thousands of years, American Indians used the asphalt from the tar seeps of Rancho La Brea in what is now Los Angeles, California, for many different things. The displays at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum show many of the Native uses of the tar and display some of the artifacts which archaeologists have recovered from the site.

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Aztec Figurines

In major museums, only a small fraction of the artifacts held by the museum are on display and interpreted for the public. Most of the museum’s artifacts are in vaults where they are available only to researchers. The Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History maintains a Visible Vault in which visitors can view hundreds of archaeological artifacts. The Visible Vault includes archaeological treasures from Ancient Latin America, including a number of Aztec figurines.

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Ancient America: Stone Artifacts from the Columbia Plateau

The Maryhill Museum located near Goldendale, Washington, has a display of Plateau stone artifacts. The Plateau Culture Area is the area between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Western Montana. From north to south it runs from the Fraser River in the north to the Blue Mountains in the south. Much of the area is classified as semi-arid. Part of it is mountainous with pine forests in the higher elevations.

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Ancient America: Carved Stone Figures in the Plateau

The Maryhill Museum located near Goldendale, Washington, has a display of Plateau stone artifacts. The Plateau Culture Area is the area between the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Western Montana. From north to south it runs from the Fraser River in the north to the Blue Mountains in the south. Much of the area is classified as semi-arid. Part of it is mountainous with pine forests in the higher elevations.

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Ancient America: Mesoamerican Stelae

Mesoamerica is the area from Mexico south through Panama. In this geographic area, a number of complex cultures emerged with subsistence patterns based on agriculture and wide-spreading trading networks. Like the ancient civilizations in other parts of the world, such as Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt, the Mesoamerican civilizations were characterized by cities, hierarchical governments, and writing.

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Ancient America: The Great Basin Archaic Period

The Great Basin is an area that includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. Today this is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The valleys in the area are 3,000 to 6,000 feet in altitude and are separated by mountain ranges running north and south that are 8,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The rivers in this region do not flow into the ocean, but simply disappear into the sand.

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Ancient America: Vikings and Indians

More than a thousand years ago, the Norse—commonly called Vikings—had expanded their settlements west from Scandinavia into Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, and North America. Both Ireland and Britain were, of course, occupied by farming peoples and the establishment of Norse settlements required the force of arms. Iceland was uninhabited (though some sources indicate that there may have been a handful of hermit Irish monks) and Greenland was sparsely populated by nomadic hunter-gatherers. In North America, the Norse encountered natives whom they called Skraelings who were not always friendly.

The Norse sagas describe a number of conflicts with Skraelings. The Norse word saga means both “what is said” and “story, tale, or history.” While the sagas have been written down, they were originally oral histories and their accuracy in describing historic events are hotly debated by scholars.

There was a time when many historians doubted that the Norse had explored North America, but archaeology has verified the existence of one permanent Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland and there is some evidence of other settlements and camps.

While the Norse are often stereotyped as fierce warriors who raided monasteries and towns, this was not how they saw themselves. The designation Viking refers to only one Norse activity: raiding. The Norse were also traders, farmers, shipbuilders, explorers, merchants, manufacturers, and statesmen. In his article in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, William Fitzhugh writes:

“Despite their reputation as shipbuilders, sailors, and warriors, the Norse identified themselves as farmers rather than as fishermen, hunters, trappers, or traders, even though individual Vikings might spend considerable periods of the year engaged in these tasks.”

Cattle were an important food source which provided the Norse with dairy products including cheese, butter, and skyr. The cattle, which were relatively small—standing less than 48” at the shoulder—could be transported in their longships.


L’Anse aux Meadows, an archaeological site located in Newfoundland, was settled about 1000 CE and was occupied for only about a decade. At L’Anse aux Meadows, archaeologists have uncovered eight buildings which are grouped into three complexes. The structures indicate that this was not a temporary campsite, but a settlement which was occupied year-round. It is estimated that the settlement had a population of 70-90 people. While the sagas indicate that the Norse carried cattle with them, there are no indications that the Norse at L’Anse aux Meadows had cattle: there do not appear to have been any outbuildings, corrals, or animal pens. If the Norse had cattle with them, they must have been left in the open.

The Norse at L’Anse aux Meadows did some iron smelting at the site, probably to produce boat nails to be used in repairing their longships.

One of the intriguing clues from L’Anse aux Meadows is the presence of butternuts, a butternut burl that was cut with iron tools, and grapes at the site. Butternut trees, also called white walnut, have never grown in Newfoundland and the butternuts must have come from someplace farther south. The closest area for butternuts is the Saint Lawrence River Valley, just east of present-day Quebec City. Archaeologist Birgitta Wallace, in an article in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, reports:

“The significance of the nuts is that they indicate that the people who lived at L’Anse aux Meadows made excursions to regions farther south. Butternuts grow in the same areas as wild grapes, so whoever picked the nuts must have come across grapevines as well. This was the first archaeological proof that the saga stories of the Norse encountering wild grapes are not myth but based on reality.”

Birgitta Wallace summarizes the archaeological data from L’Anse aux Meadows this way:

“Putting all the evidence together, we find that L’Anse aux Meadows was not a colonizing venture but a base at which a large group of people, perhaps three ship crews, stayed for a short time.”

The Sagas

At L’Anse aux Meadows there is little evidence of contract between the Norse and Native Americans. Turning from archaeology to the sagas, however, we see that the Norse did have some contact.

The Icelandic sagas are based on oral traditions. They are stories of events which took place in the period between 930 and 1030, an era known as söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history. The stories describe voyages, migrations, and feuds. The sagas focus on history, particularly genealogical and family history. Sometime after 1190, these stories were written down in Old Norse.

According to the sages, the Norse under Karlsefni, Snorri, and Bjarni, sailed south to the land they called Hop at the mouth of a river. Here they found wild wheat as well as grapes. They had been here a couple of weeks, allowing their cattle to graze freely, when nine canoes made of hides came into view. The Norse made peaceful contact with the Skraelings, who are described in the sagas as:

“They were short men, ill-looking, with their hair in disorderly fashion on their heads; they were large-eyed, and had broad cheeks.”

According to the sagas, the Norse constructed dwellings and remained at Hop through the winter. They let their cattle graze freely without keepers. In the spring, a large number of canoes appeared and a market was held in which the Norse traded cloth for furs. While the Skraelings wanted to trade for iron swords and lances, Karlsefni and Snorri did not allow it. At one point in the market, a bull belonging to Karlesefni ran out of the woods and bellowed loudly. The Skraelings viewed this as a threat and hurriedly left.

Three weeks later, a large group of Skraelings appeared and there was a battle with the Norse. In the initial attack, the Skraelings drove the Norse back, but Freydis, who was pregnant, picked up a sword from a dead Norse warrior, banged in on her naked breast, and counter-attacked, driving the Skraelings off. Following the battle, the Norse decided that this was not a good place to settle, so they moved on.

Karlsefni journeyed south with forty men for about two months. They reported seeing nothing but wilderness and returned home.


       What we know at the present time is that the Norse were in North America more than a thousand years ago. Their contacts with the Native Americans appear to have involved some limited trade and probably some violence. The sagas and the archaeological evidence at L’Anse aux Meadows show that they journeyed south of Newfoundland. What we don’t know is how far south they traveled—some writers feel that they sailed as far south as Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Archaeological data confirming their southern journeys is difficult to find as it would be in the form of temporary campsites with no permanent structures.

While the sagas provide us with some possible clues about what might be locations of Norse sites in North America, there is also some puzzling information. The archaeological data from L’Anse aux Meadows and the saga’s description of Hop, sound as though there should be a Norse site along the Saint Lawrence River. However, the saga indicates that the Skraelings used hide-covered canoes, which may indicate Inuit craft from farther north. At the time of later European contact in the Saint Lawrence area, Native Americans were using dugout canoes and bark-covered canoes, but not hide-covered canoes. This may indicate: (1) that Native watercraft in that part of North America changed during the six centuries between initial Norse contact and later European contact; or (2) the Norse saga was mistaken about the covering used on the canoes.


Ancient Mesoamerica: Maize (Corn)

When the Europeans began their invasion of the Americas, they found that the indigenous people of the continent, generally called American Indians, had a highly developed agricultural system. While American Indians raised a great many different crops, one of the important plants was maize (Zea mays), often called corn in American English. In addition to maize, American Indians had also domesticated numerous other plants, including beans, squash, chili peppers, avocados, cotton, and others.

With regard to the importance of maize in the Americas, Michael Coe and Rex Koontz, in their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, write:

“Maize was and is the very basis of settled life in Mexico and, in fact, throughout the regions of the New World civilized in Pre-Columbian times.”

The archaeological record shows that corn was originally domesticated in Mexico and then diffused north into the eastern portion of what is now the United States and into the American Southwest. It also diffused south into South America.

In general, the process of plant domestication was neither random nor sudden. Early hunters and gatherers had to have an intimate knowledge of ecology. They understood the seasonal cycle of plants and for thousands of years had deliberately  altered the environment through processes such as burning to enhance the plants they found most useful. With regard to the process of domestication, Emily McClung de Tapia, in an essay on the origins of food production in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, reports:

“The origin of agriculture represents the culmination of a number of interrelated processes, socioeconomic as well as biological and ecological. For instance, some plants such as maize or certain species of beans underwent mutations, altering their genetic composition and rendering them more amenable for harvesting, subsequent storage, and, finally, human consumption.”

A domesticated plant is one which has become genetically altered through human intervention so that it has become dependent on human actions for its continued reproduction. It should be pointed out that humans also cultivate and care for plants which have not become domesticated. In the process of domestication, humans deliberately select for favorable mutations and genetic change.

The search for the origins of maize involves three basic questions: (1) what was the ancestral plant for maize; (2) when was it first domesticated; and (3) where was it domesticated. In general, the search for the origins of maize has focused on Mexico in the period after 7000 BCE. Initially, archaeologists hypothesized that a wild grass known as teosinte (Zea mexicana) was the progenitor of maize (Zea mays) and recent findings from molecular biology support this hypothesis.

Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of maize comes from the site of San Andrés on the Gulf Coast of Tabasco. At this site, evidence of maize in the form of phytoliths (tiny silicon particles contained in plants) dates to 4800 BCE. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:

“There are no known wild species of Zea native to coastal Tabasco, so these plants were introduced to the region, almost certainly by humans. At the same level the archaeologists found evidence of large-scale forest clearance of the type associated with maize cultivation in this area.”

In the highlands of Oaxaca, archaeologists found a maize cob in Guilá Naquitz cave which was dated to 4300 BCE.

The best-known evidence for the early domestication of maize comes from the Tehuacan Valley in Puebla. Originally, the cobs from caves in this valley were dated to about 5000 BCE, but more recent re-dating of the material suggests a date of only 3500 BCE.

The cobs found in both the Oaxaca and Tehuacan sites show that maize had already gone through significant evolution from teosinte. The data from these sites do not provide definitive answers to the questions about when and where maize was first domesticated. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz summarize the data this way:

“We have some way to go before we answer these questions, but the most important general fact remains: many thousands of years before Christ, the Indians of Mesoamerica had brought a very primitive, wild form of maize under their control.”

The development of agriculture had ramifications for social organization. While archaeologists used to talk about an agricultural revolution (called the Neolithic Revolution in Europe) which seem to imply rapid sociocultural change, the archaeological data today suggests a rather slow evolution. Gradually, the domesticated plants, such as maize in the Americas, became more important and with this came villages with permanent structures, storage facilities, and greater use of pottery. Looking at the archaeological data from Tehuacan, Emily McClung de Tapia writes:

“The transition to increased dependence upon cultivated food plants goes hand-in-hand with an increase in the region’s population together with increases in the duration of occupation of campsites.”

Ancient America: Some Aztec Gods

For the general public, the Aztecs (also known as the Mexica) are probably the best-known ancient American civilization. Like the Christians who later conquered much of the Americas, the Aztecs established their empire through religiously inspired military conquest.

The religion of the Aztecs, likes those of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, was polytheistic: that is, many different gods were worshiped. In comparing the Aztec pantheon of gods with those of the Greeks, archaeologist Brian Fagan, in his book The Aztecs, writes of the Aztec gods:

“They were related to one another, but in no systematic way as, say, many of the Greek deities were. Nor was there a hierarchy of gods and goddesses.”

As with religions elsewhere in the world, such as Christianity, the religion of the Aztecs incorporated the beliefs, ceremonies, and deities of earlier religions. Some of the deities were the patron deities of social, political, or economic groups; some were tribal deities. Brian Fagan reports:

“Even individual people might have their own special divine patrons, usually the deity associated with the day of their birth.”

With regard to the importance of the deities and religion to the daily lives of the Aztecs, Brian Fagan writes:

“The Mexica believed that they lived only through the grace of the gods, the deities who gave them sustenance, rain, and everything that flourished on earth. Almost every act, however trivial, was surrounded with a religious symbolism that is difficult for us to understand.”

Today, we don’t know exactly how many deities (gods and goddesses) were worshiped by the Aztecs. To confuse the issue for non-Aztec people, the deities often have several names reflecting their many aspects. In his book Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind, Miguel León-Portilla writes:

“Quite often they are designated by a number of different names. In addition, the myths interweave, overlap, merge, and become tinted with local color.”

Listed below are a few of the better-known Aztec deities:

  • Ometeotl: this is an all-pervasive deity who is often portrayed as bisexual. In their book Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson report:

“The god was a combination of the male and female generative forces, associated with fire and maize and also called the Old Sorcerer.”

  • Tezcatlipoca: this is a youthful, virile, and all-knowing deity who is associated with the four directions. This god is of Toltec origin. Tezcatlipoca was the patron of young warriors.
  • Quetzalcoatl: the feathered serpent is an ancient concept in Mesoamerica and certainly predates the rise of the Aztec. He has a major role in the religions and ceremonies of many different cultures. Quetzalcoatl is associated with divination, astronomy, and astrology.
  • Huitzilopochtli: called Hummingbird on the Left, this is the patron god of the Aztecs. Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson write:

“Huitzilopochtli appears in the earliest histories of the Aztec, as patron and protector on the long journey out of Aztlan to Tenochtitlan.”

Brian Fagan writes:

“A minor god elevated to greatness by imperial propagandists, Huitzilopochtli became the very personification of virile warriorhood, a young, brave god, who sought constant human sacrifices as his rightful due.”

Michael Coe and Rex Koontz, in their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, describe Huitzilipochtli this way:

“…he was the tutelary divinity of the Aztec people; the terrible warrior god of the Sun, he needed the hearts and blood of sacrificed human warriors so that he would rise from the east each morning after a nightly trip through the Underworld.”

With regard to his prowess as a war god, Huitzilopochtli provided miraculous powers to the Aztecs which enabled them to defeat their enemies and expand their empire.

  • Xiuhtecutli: is the fire god and was associated with the coronation of rulers.
  • Tlaloc: is the god who controls the rain. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:

“One of the more horrifying Aztec practices was the sacrifice of small children on mountain tops to bring rain at the end of the dry season, in propitiation of Tlaloc. It was said that the more the children cried, the more the Rain God was pleased.”

The wife of Tlaloc is Chalchiuhtlicue (The Lady of the Jade Skirt) who is the goddess of water.

  • Chicomecoatl: is the goddess of the young maize plants. She is also associated with pulque, the intoxicating (i.e. alcoholic) beverage that is brewed from the maguey plant.
  • Teteoinnan: this goddess is the Earth Mother who was worshipped by doctors and midwives.
  • Xipe Totec: “Our Lord the Flayed One” is a fertility god who is portrayed as wearing a human skin. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:

“He was the god of spring and the renewal of the vegetation, impersonated by priests and those doing penance, wearing the skin of a flayed captive—the new skin symbolizing the ‘skin’ of vegetation which the earth puts on when the rains come.”

Ancient America: The Halliday Site in Illinois

The ancient city of Cahokia was originally founded about 600 CE and its time of greatest development appears to have been between 1050 and 1250. Conservative estimates say that Cahokia had a population of 10,000, but there are some who feel that its population may have been closer to 75,000.

The most spectacular feature of this city is Monk’s Mound which was completed in 1050. This earthen pyramid is 1,800 feet long, 710 feet wide, and 100 feet high. It covers 14 acres. The structure which was on top of the pyramid was 100 feet long and 50 feet high.

Cahokia served as the cultural, economic, and political center of a much larger area. It is generally seen at the center of Mississippian culture which extended from Florida in the south to Wisconsin in the north. Mississippian villages were generally built around large public courtyards.

At about the same time that the Mississippian people of Cahokia completed the construction of Monk’s Mound, another group of Indian people established a small village about ten miles southeast of Cahokia. Located in present-day Illinois, this village today is known as the Halliday site. The village contained 150 houses and storages sheds and was home to 200 to 300 people. The pottery styles in the village appear to be either old-fashioned or foreign to the region. The pottery resembles an earlier pottery type known to archaeologists as Varney Red Filmed, which had been made in southern Missouri at an earlier time period.

Interestingly enough, there are no male-oriented artifacts at the site. There are bone weaving tools, spindle whorls, and ample evidence of intensive farming, pottery production, and communal cooking. There are, however, no arrowheads or evidence of large game animals.

In his book Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, anthropologist Timothy Pauketat reports:

“These upland villagers, living at the edge of the Illinois prairie, were eating small lizards, frogs, snakes, turtles, and rodents, as well as large amounts of corn, possibly more than anybody else in the area at the time—probably cooked as soup, judging from the residues found in pots. They were also eating their dogs, which was not a common practice at Cahokia.”

With regard to their diet, Timothy Pauketat notes:

“They ate more corn and less protein than is healthy for a person. What protein they did eat was far from choice bits of meat, and the existence of these near-peasant farmers was far from ideal, even for the time.”

Who were these people? Timothy Pauketat answers:

“They were immigrants, or the children of immigrants, from southeastern Missouri or northeastern Arkansas, and they were heavily into chunkey.”

Chunkey is a game which was commonly played by the Southeastern Indians, such as the Creeks. The game appears to have originated among the Mississippian peoples of Cahokia. Anthropologist Timothy Pauketat writes:

“The game called Chunkey appears to have played a significant role in organizing social and political life in Cahokia.”

The game involved the use of a stone discoid which was rolled on its edge across a packed-clay playing field. Timothy Pauketat describes what happens next:

“A few paces into the yard the players, at about the same time, chuck their playing sticks like huge darts after the rolling stone. Points were scored depending on how close to the stone the sticks—or, actually, a series of marks on leather bands on each stick—landed.”

At the time the Halliday site was established, the people at Cahokia had begun making some fine chunkey stones which replaced the older, thicker, community-owned stones.

Ancient America: Colorado Prior to 6000 BCE

The boundary lines that mark the current state of Colorado are artificial and were laid down by non-Indigenous people with no regard for the cultures of the American Indians who had occupied this territory for thousands of years. Within categories of American Indian culture areas Colorado includes portions of three: (1) the Southwest; (2) the Great Basin; and (3) the Great Plains. Listed below are some of the archaeological sites in Colorado which have been dated prior to 6,000 BCE.

Dutton and Selby sites: by 15,000 BCE, Indian people at the Dutton and Selby sites near the present-day town of Wray were hunting (or at least scavenging) camels, horses, and bison.

Lamb Spring: about 11,140 BCE, Indian people at the Lamb Spring site butchered a mammoth.

Mahaffy Cache: about 11,000 BCE, Indian people using Clovis technology left a cache of tools—8 bi-facially flaked knives, a chopping tool, and numerous flakes—at one of their sites. DNA analysis of the protein residue on the tools of the Mahaffy Cache revealed that they had been hunting bear, horse, wild sheep, and camel.

Jones-Miller site: by 9500 BCE, Indian people were using the Jones-Miller (5YM08) bison kill site.

By about 8000 BCE, Indian people at the Jones-Miller site (5YM08) appear to have domesticated dogs. They were also using Hell Gap points.

Lindenmeier site: by 9200 BCE, Indian people using Folsom technology were using the Lindenmeier site for processing bison. In her book The Prehistory of Colorado and Adjacent Areas, anthropologist Tammy Stone reports:

“It appears that the camp space was divided into different activity areas for manufacturing various items from bone, including jewelry. This site demonstrates that Folsom period peoples butchered and ate many different animals including, but not restricted to, bison, although we do not know in what proportions.”

Great Stemmed Basin complex: by 8700 BCE, Indian people were making long-stemmed points with random, collateral, or other flaking patterns. Archaeologists will later call this the Great Stemmed Basin complex.

Beads: by 8700 BCE, Indian people were making very small beads out of oil shale.

Bison hunting: about 8800 BCE, American Indian bison hunters were camping in a small, well-watered valley north of Fort Collins, Colorado. This site was visited on a regular basis by two semi-autonomous groups who cooperated in the bison hunts.

Agate Basin Complex: about 8800 BCE, the Agate Basin Complex appears in Colorado. Archaeologically, this complex appears to be an outgrowth of the Folsom tradition. The projectile points are very long and slender. The shapes range from lanceolate to leaf-shaped and occasionally the points are pointed at both ends.

Olsen-Chubbock site: about 8500 BCE, Indian hunters killed almost 200 buffalo at the Olsen-Chubbock site. The 150 fully butchered animals produced about 60,000 pounds of meat which is enough to feed 50 people for more than 3 months.

About 8200 BCE, Indian hunters using Plainview and Plano tool kits drove a herd of bison into a gully and killed about 200 animals. In his book Prehistory of the Americas, Stuart Fiedel describes it this way:

“A whole herd was apparently surrounded and driven into the steep, narrow arroyo. The animals struggled vainly to escape as others fell on top of them. Those that lay on top of the pile were finished off by the hunters, while the bison trapped beneath them were crushed to death.”

Only a few of the animals at the Olsen-Chubbuck site were butchered. The kill took place in the summer or early fall. It is estimated that 150 to 200 people took part in the hunt.

Hell Gap Complex: about 8500 NCE, the Hell Gap Complex begins. The Hell Gap projectile point appears to have developed out of the Agate Basin points. The Hell Gap points have constricted bases. Anthropologist Tammy Stone reports:

“The constricted base indicates that these points may have had socketed hafts, which is further supported by grinding on the base but not on the lower lateral edges.”

Plainview Complex: about 8200 BCE, the Plainview Complex appeared in Colorado. Archaeologically this complex is defined by lanceolate-shaped projectile points with parallel or slightly convex sides and concave bases.

Foothills-Mountain Complex: about 8000 BCE, the Foothills-Mountain Complex was developed out of a Great Basin adaptation. The leaf-shaped points were roughly made and have ground bases. The points were used in socketed hafts.

Burial: about 7700 BCE, an Indian woman 25-30 years old died and was buried in a flexed position near Gordon Creek. She was covered with red ochre before burial and was interred with her head oriented to the north. Buried with her were a grinding stone, a hammer stone, an end scraper, two small bi-faced stone blades, and three utilized flakes. In addition to the stone tools, the burial goods included two worked animal ribs and a perforated elk tooth. She was 4’11” tall.

Hourglass Cave: about 6620 BCE, the body of a man is buried in the Hourglass Cave.

Bison Hunt: about 6500 BCE, southeast of Kit Carsen, Colorado, hunters stampeded a large bison herd into a dry gully. The herd went off a steep edge and 157 were killed. Three-fourths of the bison were butchered and this meat would have provisioned 100 people for about a month.

Black Knoll Phase: about 6250 BCE, in Northwestern Colorado, the period which archaeologists call the Black Knoll Phase begins. Archaeologists Tammy Stone reports:

“The Black Knoll is characterized by increasing population, evident in the increased number of sites.”

Note: The information in parenthesis following the name of the site is the Smithsonian Designation System. In this system of recording archaeological sites, the first number refers to the state; this is followed by letters which refer to the county; and then a number indicating its order in being recorded. Thus 5LP 10, means that the site is in Colorado (5th state when the states are listed alphabetically), La Plata County (LP), and was the 10th site recorded in La Plata county in the State Archaeologist’s office.

Ancient America: Texas Prior to 5000 BCE

As a cultural area, the Southern Plains is bounded by the Arkansas River on the north, the Rocky Mountains on the west, the Mississippi River on the east, and the Balcones Escarpment on the south. The area presently known as Texas covers much of the Southern Plains. In general, this is a grassy area with forests found along the streams.

American Indians lived in Texas for many thousands of years prior to the European invasion. The period of time prior to 8,000 BCE is often called the Paleo-Indian Period and the era from 8,000 to 5,000 BCE is known as the Early Mobile Foraging Period. During these time periods, American Indian groups were primarily nomadic hunters. Since there were very few plant foods with nutritional value for humans, these early Indian groups depended largely on hunting for their subsistence. Archaeologist Susan Vehik, in her chapter in the Handbook of North American Indians, reports:

“Large and small animal resources were utilized prehistorically. Bison are commonly assumed to be the primary animal resource, but the Southern Plains experienced pronounced fluctuations in the size and distribution of bison herds.”

Susan Vehik also reports:

“Bison herds are a clumped and unpredictable resource compared to deer and other small animals that tend to be dispersed. This distinction has implications for the size and distribution of human social groups.”

About 5000 BCE, the Great Plains began to enter into a climate period known as the Altithermal which is a hot, dry episode that lasted for about 2,500 years. In the Southern Great Plains this marked the transition from the Early Mobile Foraging Period to the Late Mobile Foraging Period.

Briefly described below are some of the archaeological sites in Texas which date prior to 5000 BCE.

Paleo-Indian Period

During the Paleo-Indian Period, Indian people on the Plains were nomadic hunter-gatherers. With regard to the stone technology used on the Plains during the Paleo-Indian Period, Douglas Bamforth, in his entry on the Plains in the The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, reports:

“The Paleo-Indian period on the Plains is also well-known for the sophistication of its stoneworking: Projectile points in particular are extremely well-crafted, aesthetically pleasing, and difficult to produce, and Paleo-Indian flint knappers tended to manufacture them from very high-quality stone.”

Petronila Creek: by 16,000 BCE, Indian people were occupying a hunting and fishing camp on Petronila Creek. They were hunting mammoth, ground sloth, camel, horse, peccary, antelope, coyote, prairie dog, and alligator. They were fishing for catfish, gar, and other fish.

Levi Rockshelter: by about 11,750 BCE, Indian people were using the Levi Rockshelter.

Buttermilk Creek: by about 11,200 BCE, Indian people were occupying the Buttermilk Creek site.

Gault site: by 11,000 BCE, Indian people at the Gault site were making adzes for woodworking. Archaeologists Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley, in their book Across Atlantic Ice: The Origins of America’s Clovis Culture, write:

“Small incised stones have been recovered from the Clovis level at the Gault Site in Central Texas. These stones are mostly thin limestone slabs that are natural in the area. The incising is mostly geometric designs, especially hatching and crosshatching, but at least two stones may be etched with animal representations.”

Lubbock Lake Landmark: by 11,000 BCE, Indian people were hunting mammoth as well as other mammals at the Lubbock Lake Landmark site.

Early Mobile Foraging Period

Stone Tools: by about 9650 BCE, Indian people near Aubry, Texas were making and re-sharpening stone tools similar to those which archaeologists classify as Clovis. Material for making the stone tools was not local. The source of the nearest tool material at the site was about 200 miles away.

Burial: about 9200 BCE, two Indian people—a middle-aged man and a girl of about 12—were buried together in the Horn Shelter Number 2 site. The man was buried on his left side with his head resting on a stack of turtle shells. The girl was buried so that she was nestled against his back. More than a hundred offerings were placed in the grave.

At the time of his death, the man was 35-44 years old, stood about 5’5” tall, and weighed 150 pounds. Overall, he was very muscular. His teeth were heavily worn, some were broken, and some were missing.

Both individuals had been subject to starvation and/or disease during childhood. Both appear to have had an infection at the time of death. According to anthropologist James Chatters, in his book Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans:

“This evidence of infection and frequent malnutrition may give us a hint about the cause of these people’s simultaneous deaths: infections made worse by starvation, perhaps during an unusually harsh winter.”

Hot Tubb: about 8900 BCE, Folsom buffalo hunters at the Hot Tubb site (41 CR 10) killed and processed at least six animals. In their report in the Plains Anthropologist, David Meltzer, John Seebach, and Ryan Byerly write:

“The heavy use and attrition indicated by the lithic remains—the intensive re-sharpening and recycling of both scrapers and projectile points—bespeaks a group(s) for whom stone, by the time they arrived at Hot Tubb, was in short supply.”

The stones being used for their tools was Edwards chert, from a site to the east. It is possible that the group was in route to acquire new stone when it stopped at Hot Tubb.

Midland: about 8900 BCE, Folsom people near present-day Midland were using small beads – 1.6 mm in diameter – made from bone as decorative items. According to JoAllyn Archambault of the Smithsonian Institution in her chapter in The Encyclopedia of North American Indians:

“The bone bead is as finely made as the best hishe beads (disk-shaped shell beads with a single hole in the middle) created by contemporary Indian bead makers using modern equipment.”

Buffalo Jump: by 8300 BCE, Indian people were stampeding buffalo over a 70-foot cliff. They were using both Folsom points and unfluted Plainview points.

Plainview: by 8200 BCE, Indian people were occupying the Plainview site on the eastern edge of the Llano Estacado. Lithic technology involved the use of prepared polyhedral cores and specialized flake production. Bifaces were rare and final point form was dependent on the form of the flakes struck from the core.

Hinds Cave: by 7400 BCE, Indian people at the Hinds Cave site were eating domesticated dog. They were probably also using dogs for hunting, for protection, and possibly for pets. The dog appears to be genetically similar to the later short-nosed dogs found in New Mexico.

Ryan’s site: by 7220 BCE, Indian people were occupying the Ryan’s site (41LU72) near present-day Shallowater. The stone tools used by the people at this site suggest either high mobility or extensive trade over long distances. The stone used for the tools included chert from central Texas (120 to 200 miles to the south and southeast), Alibates from the Canadian River area (120 miles to the north), and Tecovas jasper (60 miles north-northeast).

Buffalo Hunt: about 7170, Plainview hunters stampeded a herd of 100 buffalo into a gully and killed them. The hunters used atlatls tipped with Plainview points which were roughly similar to Clovis points except that they were not fluted.

Central Texas: by about 6000 BCE, Indian people in Central Texas adopted to changing environmental conditions by having a settlement/subsistence system which was characterized by small groups seasonally occupying widely dispersed camps.

Burials: by 5500 BCE, Indian people in the Edwards Plateau area were burying their dead by dropping or lowering them into sinkholes. Afterwards, they threw in rock to bury, or at least partially bury, the body. Burials tended to be egalitarian. According to archaeologist Leland Bement, in his book Hunter-Gatherer Mortuary Practices during the Central Texas Archaic:

“The presence of both sexes and all age-groups in the various deposits indicate that the burial facility was available to all members of the society and not limited to a certain segment.”

In general, Indian people of the Edwards Plateau area were healthy, robust, and free of diseases.

Ancient America: Idaho, 6000 BCE to 3000 BCE

The present-day state of Idaho is a totally arbitrary area defined by political concerns unrelated to American Indian history. With regard to American Indian cultures, Idaho straddles two distinct culture areas: (1) the Plateau in the north and (2) the Great Basin in the south. The climatic changes from 6000 BCE to 3000 BCE impacted the Indian people in these two areas differently. In the Plateau area, this period is called the Middle Period by archaeologists. Briefly described below are some of the archaeological sites which date to this era.

Owl Cave: by 6000 BCE, Indian people were using Owl Cave as a site for the systematic killing of buffalo. According to archaeologist B. Robert Butler in the Handbook of North American Indians:

“Apparently, each of the Owl Cave kills resulted from a well-planned and coordinated undertaking in which herds of 30 or more Bison antiquus were induced or driven into the cave, dispatched with spear thrust into the body cavities, and then systematically butchered.”

The now extinct Bison antiquus is generally considered to be the ancestor to the modern Bison bison bison. This extinct species was 15% to 25% larger than the modern bison.

Centennial Mountains: by 6000 BCE, Indian people were hunting and gathering in the Centennial Mountains where they left behind hundreds of camp sites.

Quarry Sites: by 5800 BCE, Indian people were using a number of quarry sites along the upper Salmon and Pahsimeroi rivers. These are located at an elevation of 7,800 feet. Since not all stone can be used for making stone tools, sites where good stone can be easily obtained were very important.

Bernard Creek Rockshelter: by 5250 BCE, Indian people occupied the Bernard Creek Rockshelter in Hells Canyon.

Birch Creek: by 5200 BCE, Indian people were now living in the Birch Creek area. The climate at this time was arid and the lakes in the area had been reduced to intermittent marshes.

Kirkwood bar site: by 5100 BCE, Indian people were now living at the Kirkwood bar site in Hells Canyon.

DeMoss site: by 5000 BCE, Indian people had established a cemetery at the DeMoss site in the south-central portion of the state.

Root Plants: by 4400 BCE, the Indian people in the eastern Plateau Area (this would include what is today northern Idaho) were using root plants. Earth ovens were being used in processing these plant foods. By 3500 BCE, camas was in regular use in this area.

Village: by 4050 BCE, the Nez Perce established a village site on the Clearwater River. Economic activities at this time included salmon fishing.

Little Salmon River: about 4015 BCE, 22 people were buried at an Indian graveyard near the Little Salmon River.

Island Park Reservoir: by 4000 BCE, Indian people began to live in the Island Park Reservoir area.

Weiser River: about 3840 BCE, two women, and four children were buried in a mass grave near the mouth of the Weiser River.

Challis: by 3380 BCE, near present-day Challis, Indian people began using a buffalo jump to kill buffalo.

Burials: by 3200 BCE, in southwest Idaho, Indian people were buried with elaborate grave goods, including red ochre, olivella shells, large biface points, dog skulls, pipes, hematite crystals, and tools.

Corn Creek: by 3000 BCE, Indian people began living in the Corn Creek area.

Ancient America: Idaho Prior to 6000 BCE

Archaeologists often refer to the era prior to 6000 BCE in North America as Paleo-Indian. This appears to have been a time when the people specialized in the hunting of big game. At this time, the Plateau area—roughly the area between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Mountains, had emerged from the effects of glacial ice.

Writing about the Southern Plateau in the Handbook of North American Indians, Kenneth Ames, Don Dumond, Jerry Galm, and Rick Minor report:

“People appear to have moved frequently; there is no evidence of dwellings or structures of any kind during this period, as there is also no evidence of food storage. Hunter-gatherers under these conditions can be expected to have quite low population densities.”

In looking at the earliest history of American Indians in what is now the state of Idaho, there are two major cautions: (1) Idaho is a totally arbitrary area defined by much later political concerns unrelated to American Indian history, and (2) the archaeological record is far from complete. There are large temporal gaps in our understanding of this early time period. Briefly described below are some of the archaeological sites from this time period.

American Falls: about 28,000 BCE (Before Current Era), Indian people near the American Falls on the Snake River were killing bison. Note: this early date is controversial and not accepted by most archaeologists.

Wilson Butte Cave: by 13,000 BCE, Indian people began using the Wilson Butte Cave in southern Idaho as a shelter. They were using bifacially worked points and blades.

Intermountain Stemmed Point Tradition: by 11,500 BCE, a hunting camp was established by Indians using what archaeologists call the Intermountain Stemmed Point Tradition.

Hatwai: by about 10,900 BCE, Indian people were fishing with nets at the Hatwai site (10NP143).

Burial: about 10,600 BCE, a young woman (17-21 years of age) died near the Snake River in the south-central part of the state. She was buried with a large stemmed biface, an eyed needle, a badger baculum, and a bone artifact. She was 5’2” tall and had regularly faced hunger as she was growing up. Salmon had provided some of the protein (possibly 10%) in her diet. Her diet also included processed meat, such as pemmican.

Shoup Rockshelter: by 10,460 BCE, Indian people were occupying the Shoup Rockshelter near Salmon, Idaho.

Owl Cave: by 10,250 BCE, Indian people were occupying Owl Cave. By 8850 BCE, Indian people living at Owl Cave were butchering and eating mammoth.

By 6000, BCE, Indians were using Owl Cave as a site for the systematic killing of buffalo. According to archaeologist B. Robert Butler in the Handbook of North American Indians:

“Apparently, each of the Owl Cave kills resulted from a well-planned and coordinated undertaking in which herds of 30 or more Bison antiquus were induced or driven into the cave, dispatched with spear thrust into the body cavities, and then systematically butchered.”

Cooper’s Ferry Site: about 10,050 BCE, a group of hunting people left a cache of tools in a circular pit at one of their regular camp sites along the lower Salmon River Canyon. The site is located on a small alluvial terrace about ten meters above the confluence of Rock Creek and the lower Salmon River. The tools included stone points and scrapers. Some of the tools had been used and then reworked to renew their cutting surfaces. Caching of equipment for future use was relatively common among nomadic peoples. In an article in American Antiquity, Loren Davis, Alex Nyers, and Samuel Willis write:

“In this manner, equipment manufactured for tasks that are specific to a particular time and place are stored in a designed holding facility. Equipment caches might also play a role as insurance or backup systems, where additional stores of tools are placed at strategic locations in the landscape as a low-cost, embedded aspect of moving in a landscape.”

They also write:

“Overall, the creation and use of equipment caches is intended to help solve problems of logistical mobility and improve efficiency in resource exploitation.”

By 10,020 BCE, Indian people at the Cooper’s Ferry site were using a variety of stemmed points, including those which archaeologists classify as Lind Coulee, Windust, and Cascade.

By 9400 BCE, Indian people with a Western Stemmed Tradition technology occupied the Cooper’s Ferry Site. Many archaeologists feel that the people who used the Western Stemmed Tradition technology were different from those who used Clovis technology.

By 9000 BCE, Indians from the Cooper’s Ferry Site were hunting in the Beaverhead Mountains. They were using Lind Coulee type spear points. Roy Carlson, in the Indian Art Traditions of the Northwest Coast, writes:

“The Lind Coulee Tradition is characterized by large stemmed projectile points, chipped stone crescents, and large steep scrapers.”

Bison and Veratic Rockshelters: by 8390 BCE Indian people at the Bison Rockshelter and the Veratic Rockshelter were using stone points which are pressure-flaked and fluted.

We’eptes Pa’axat: by 8200 BCE, Indian people were occupying the We’eptes Pa’axat (Five Eagles) site near present-day Lenore, Idaho. The site was being used intermittently for hunting and processing deer and mountain sheep as well as for manufacturing stone tools.

Redfish Overhang: by 8150 BCE, Indian people began to occupy the Redfish Overhang near Stanley, Idaho.

Note: the information in parenthesis following the name of the site is the Smithsonian Designation System. In this system of recording archaeological sites, the first number refers to the state; this is followed by letters which refer to the county; and then a number indicating its order in being recorded. Thus 5LP 10, means that the site is in Colorado (5th state when the states are listed alphabetically), La Plata County (LP), and was the 10th site recorded in La Plata county in the State Archaeologist’s office.

Ancient America: Nebraska Prior to 6000 BCE

Archaeologists often refer to the era prior to 6000 BCE in North America as Paleo-Indian. This appears to have been a time when the people specialized in the hunting of big game. Briefly described below are a few of the archaeological sites in Nebraska which date to before 6000 BCE.

La Sena Site: By 17,000 BCE, Indian people were butchering mammoth at the La Sena Site (25FT177) on the shore of Medicine Creek Reservoir in Frontier County. In a chapter in Medicine Creek: Seventy Years of Archaeological Investigations, archaeologists Steven Holen and David May write:

“We have suggested that humans were responsible for the high-velocity impact fractures on thick cortical bone and for the bone flaking.”

Jensen Site: By 11,000 BCE, Indian people were butchering mammoth at the Jensen site.

Allen Site: By 9000 BCE, Indian people had occupied the Allen site (25FT50). In his chapter in Medicine Creek: Seventy Years of Archaeological Investigations, archaeologist Douglas Bamforth reports:

“One striking aspect of the Allen site collection is the number of formal diversity of bone tools it contains.”

Among these tools are needles in varying thicknesses which suggest a variety of kinds of sewing. Animal remains include bison, deer, antelope, jackrabbit, cottontail, and prairie dog. In an article in Mammoth Trumpet, George Wisner reports:

“From the data emerges a portrait of small family groups, dating back as far as the Folsom age, tapping into a variety of resources in well-wooded and moist drainages.”

By about 6300 BCE, Indian people were using the Allen site as a summer camp. They were hunting bison, antelope, deer, rabbit, and birds. They were also eating fresh water mussels and fish. Their tool kit included concave based projectile points, scrapers, lanceolate and ovid bifaces, grinding and abrasive tools, drills, eyed bone needles, and awls.

Red Smoke Site: By 7000 BCE, Indian people occupied the Red Smoke site (25FT42). In her chapter in Medicine Creek: Seventy Years of Archaeological Investigations, archaeologist Ruthann Knudson reports:

“The site appears to reflect flaked stone reduction activities while people were camped at the site, which was adjacent to exposed jasper bedrock.”

The O. V. Clary Site: By 7000 BCE, Indian people had occupied the O. V. Clary site. Archaeologists classify the people who are using this site as Allen Complex foragers using lanceolate projectile points. The site appears to have been used as a residential base camp which was occupied continuously for 5-7 months from mid- to late-summer through late winter or early spring. The site was well-sheltered with easy access to water as well as to brush and wood for fuel and for tool construction.

The primary animal which the people were hunting at this time was the bison. In an article in American Antiquity, archaeologists Matthew Hill, David Rapson, Thomas Loebel, and David May report:

“Bison are interpreted as the focal prey for the duration of the occupation. These animals were likely taken singly during encounter-type hunting within Ash Hollow and the surrounding uplands.”

Note: the information in parenthesis following the name of the site is the Smithsonian Designation System. In this system of recording archaeological sites, the first number refers to the state; this is followed by letters which refer to the county; and then a number indicating its order in being recorded. Thus 5LP 10, means that the site is in Colorado (5th state when the states are listed alphabetically), La Plata County (LP), and was the 10th site recorded in La Plata county in the State Archaeologist’s office.


Ancient America: Wyoming 6000 BCE to 2500 BCE

About 8,000 years ago (6000 BCE), the American Indian cultures of the Northern Plains began undergoing a series of major changes. There was a decrease in dependence on big game hunting as the people engaged in a wide range of hunting and gathering patterns. This is a period which archaeologists call the Archaic Period (also called the Middle Precontact Period by some archaeologists).

At about 5000 BCE, the Great Plains began to enter into a climate period known as the Altithermal. This was a hot, dry episode that lasts for about 2,500 years. During this time, the bison had to shift their ranges and subsequently Indian people either moved with them or changed to other game. In his Columbia University Ph.D. Dissertion on the MacHaffie Site, Richard Forbis reports:

“During the Altithermal period, climatic conditions appear to have forced bison from the Plains to the northerly regions. Man does not seem to have occupied the Plains in the Altithermal period. Man did, however, occupy other areas of North America then.”

The lack of moisture during this period meant that the production of grasses needed to sustain bison herds was restricted. Archaeologist Douglas MacDonald, in his book Montana Before History: 11,000 Years of Hunter-Gatherers in the Rockies and Plains, writes:

“Humans adapted to the changing climate and decreasing bison by increasing the breadth of their diets, changing their technology, exploiting new resources, and living in different places.”

In his book Prehistory of the Americas, archaeologist Stuart Fiedel writes:

“It seems that the bison deserted much of the Plains; some of them may have taken refuge in stream valleys or peripheral foothill areas where the water shortage was less severe.”

In his book Indians in Yellowstone National Park, anthropologist Joel Janetski writes:

“It is characterized by a greater reliance on plant foods, especially small seeds, and the increased hunting of smaller animals, although the modern large animals—deer, mountain sheep, and bison—continued to be important.”

Briefly described below are some of the Wyoming sites between 6000 BCE and 2500 BCE.

Buffalo Kill: about 6000 BCE, near Casper, Wyoming, hunters used a parabolic sand dune with steep sides to capture a herd of about 100 bison during a hunt in late autumn. The bisons’ hooves sank into the loose sand and immobilized them, which allowed the hunters to move in and kill them at close range.

James Allen: by 5900 BCE, Indian people are occupying the James Allen site (48AB4). The stone used to make the tools found at the site are from a site a hundred mile or so to the north-northeast.

48JO303: by 5850 BCE, Indian people are now occupying sit 48JO303 in the southern Big Horn Mountains. The site is located at an elevation of 7000 feet and consists of a small group of rockshelters. One of these rockshelters, designated as Shelter Three, faces west onto a steep drainage. Don Grey, in a report in the Wyoming Archaeologist, writes:

“Shelter Three had about 300 square feet of floor space under an overhanging ledge, and opened onto a large flat area thirty to forty feet wide and a hundred feet long.”

The stone projectile points in the site include McKean-like materials.

Southsider Cave: by 5700 BCE, people were occupying the Southsider Cave (48BH364). The occupants dug two cache pits about 58 centimeters in diameter and about 45 centimeters deep. The cache pits, when uncovered by archaeologists, were filled with trash. According to George Frison, in an entry in the Handbook of North American Indians:

“However, in order to preserve a cache pit of this nature for reuse once it is emptied, it must be filled with something or the sides will collapse within a short period. The easiest way to preserve them was to fill them with trash, which was removed when the pit was reused.”

Mummy Cave: by 5680, Indian people were occupying Mummy Cave (48PA201) in northwestern Wyoming.

Trappers Point: by 5580 BCE, Indian hunters camping at Trappers Point were killing pronghorn antelope and other animals. The pronghorn were corralled, killed, and then butchered. All parts of the animals are used

Chittendon Bridge: by 5000 BCE, Indian people were using the Chittendon Bridge site east of Mammoth Hot Springs on the Gardner River in present-day Yellowstone National Park.

Deadman Wash: by about 4890 BCE, Indians were occupying the Deadman Wash Site (48SW1455) in southwest Wyoming.

Helen Lookingbill: by 4800 BCE, Indian people were using the Helen Lookingbill site (48FR308) which is located at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet the Absoroka Mountains. Archaeologist Douglas MacDonald writes:

“Several bighorn sheep are represented at the site, but no bison. Local cherts were quarried at the site, suggesting a tethered settlement pattern around known resources in this rugged setting.”

Hawken: by 4340 BCE, the Hawken site (48CK303) in northeast Wyoming was used as a communal buffalo kill site. This was an arroyo trap. The bison were killed in the winter. The bison bones at the site are intermediate in size, between the extinct Bison antiquus and the modern Bison bison.

Fishing Bridge Point: By 3870 BCE, Indian people were using the Fishing Bridge Point site in present-day Yellowstone National Park. Archaeologist Douglas MacDonald writes:

“The presence of Early Archaic sites on the Yellowstone Plateau shows that Early Archaic hunter-gatherers moved into the uplands, at least during the warmer months, to hunt animals and collect the plethora of plant resources available around the shores of Yellowstone Lake.”

Twin Creek Valley: about 3260 BCE, Indian people began using a camp site in the Twin Creek Valley. Among the tools they were using were obsidian projectile points from Malad, Idaho (about 135 km to the northwest).

Hogsback: by 3330 BCE, Indian people are now occupying a pithouse at the Hogsback site (48UT2516). The pithouse is of moderate size: slightly more than 4 meters by slightly less than 4 meters. The structure was repeatedly occupied as a seasonal camp for several years. Roasting pits at the site appear to be used for cooking meat. Archaeologist Summer Moore, reporting in the Wyoming Archaeologist, writes:

“Analysis of faunal remains from the site indicates animal use was primarily focused on the procurement and processing of large game animals such as pronghorn, although the significant proportion of rabbit-sized faunal remains also suggests small animals were captured, as well. Pronghorn antelope appear to have been transported to the site as whole carcasses, possibly suggesting a trapping location or otherwise advantageous hunting site was situated nearby.”

The site was occupied during the period which archaeologists call the Opal Phase in the Wyoming Basin. This phase is characterized by a decrease in mobility due to the availability of large game animals.

House Structure: by 3250 BCE, Indian people at site 48CO1712 in the Powder River Basin constructed a house. The people at this site were gathering wild plants, such as goosefoot, and hunting mule deer and pronghorns.

McKean: by 2590 BCE, Indian people were occupying the McKean site (48CK7) near the Belle Fouche River in northeastern Wyoming. They were hunting bison as well as deer, rabbit, and pronghorn.

Scoggin: about 2540 BCE, a small band of Indian hunters used the Scoggin site (48CR304) as a bison impoundment area. The impounded buffalo were killed by using a thrusting spear. This site is located in south central Wyoming near the North Platte River.

Dead Indian Creek: by 2500 BCE, Indian people were hunting deer between October and March near the Dead Indian Creek site (48PA551) in northwestern Wyoming. This suggests that this high elevation site was occupied during the winter. Features at the site suggest that the Indian people here had constructed a housepit. Anthropologists Peter Nabokov and Lawrence Loendorf, in their book Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park, report:

“They ate mule deer, elk, and bighorn sheep, processed collected seeds, possibly making flour to thicken soup or to bake a mealy, unleavened bread, and survived at elevations where winter temperatures can drop to life-threatening lows.”

Mule deer skull caps at the Dead Indian site were arranged with their antlers attached which suggests ceremonial treatment. While sheep were an important source of food, there is no evidence of ceremonial treatment for these animals.

Medithermal Period: about 2500 BCE, the Medithermal period began with temperatures declining to modern levels. With regard to the Plains area, Richard Forbis reports:

“The Medithermal marked a return of cooler temperatures. Probably its effect on the Plains was a reduction in the number, intensity, and duration of drought periods and a gradual westward and southward return of the grasslands. And with the grasslands, capable of supporting year-round grazing, bison reappeared in great numbers; man followed the buffalo. All bison of the Medithermal period appear to be modern species.”

Note: the information in parenthesis following the name of the site is the Smithsonian Designation System. In this system of recording archaeological sites, the first number refers to the state; this is followed by letters which refer to the county; and then a number indicating its order in being recorded. Thus 5LP 10, means that the site is in Colorado (5th state when the states are listed alphabetically), La Plata County (LP), and was the 10th site recorded in La Plata county in the State Archaeologist’s office.

Ancient America: Wyoming Before 6000 BCE

Although the region of North America known today as Wyoming first entered into the written Euro-American histories in the early nineteenth century with the exploits of fur traders, trappers, and non-Indian adventurers, Indian people had been living in the area for many millennia. Archaeologists often refer to the era prior to 6000 BCE as Paleo-Indian. This appears to have been a time when the people specialized in the hunting of big game.

Yellowstone National Park:

While Indian people had utilized the resources and unique geological features of what is now Yellowstone National Park for thousands of years, when the fur traders first began describing the region to non-Indians, they were met with disbelief.

By 9600 BCE, Indian people were camping at Osprey Beach on Yellowstone Lake in present-day Yellowstone National Park.

By 8000 BCE, Indian people were living along the shores of Yellowstone Lake in present-day Yellowstone National Park. The stone tools which they were using resemble those of the complex which archaeologists call Cody (see below).

By 7400 BCE, Indian people using Cody Complex tools at the Osprey Beach site in present-day Yellowstone National Park were hunting a variety of game, including bear, deer, bighorn sheep, bison, and rabbit. They may have been exploiting the resources of Yellowstone Lake using boats.

Hell Gap:

By 9450 BCE, Indian people were beginning to occupy the Hell Gap site (48GO305) in southeastern Wyoming. They were making large, wide, un-stemmed, and lanceolate points with a long, slender tip and a wide, concave base.   In his entry on Hell Gape in A Dictionary of Archaeology, William Billeck writes:

“The Hell Gap site consists of a stratified series of short-term campsites where bison was the predominant animal represented.”

By 7600 BCE, the cultural tradition which archaeologists call the Hell Gap Complex moved into the Northern Plains. Hell Gap people were big game hunters with a primary emphasis on bison. In some areas, Hell Gap is associated with bison procurement using a parabolic dune entrapment method.


 Clovis culture, which is actually a stone tool technology complex, is one of the earliest well-documented archaeological cultures in North America. The signature artifact of the Clovis people is an atlatl point. The Clovis point is a finely made stone projective point with a characteristic flute which helps in attaching the point to an atlatl dart. Clovis points have lateral indentations (or flutes) which allow them to be efficiently tied to a shaft. The shafts were thrown with the aid of a throwing stick or atlatl. Archaeologists Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley, in their book Across Atlantic Ice: The Origins of America’s Clovis Culture, report:

“Fluted projectile points are the most readily identifiable Clovis artifacts, but there are many other items that make up the Clovis inventory. Among these are tools made from blades and flakes struck from specialized cores, plus bi-facially flaked knives and adzes.”

With regard to Clovis in Wyoming, in 9330 BCE, Clovis hunters drove a mammoth into the muck of a bog where it became trapped. They killed it and butchered it, taking the meat to their hunting camp on higher ground.

By 9280 BCE, Clovis people were occupying the Union Pacific site.

By 9250 BCE, Clovis people were occupying the Colby site. The people stacked mammoth bones in what may have been a meat cache. The stone chopper which was used at the site had been made from granite which was not from the area.

By 9200 BCE, Clovis people were camping at the Sheaman site.


About 11,000 years ago, the climate changed: it became warmer (by about 13 degrees Fahrenheit) and drier. There was also an increase in the seasonal extremes: summers were warmer and winters were colder. For Indian people, this difference meant that their cultures had to change so that they could adapt to the new environment.

Folsom people are known for their fluted spear points which were smaller and more delicate than the Clovis points. Their flutes are also longer than Clovis. In his book Bones, Boats, and Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America, Archaeologist James Dixon writes:

“The hallmark of Folsom culture is the Folsom projectile point, which is recognized throughout the Americas for its unique design, exceptional workmanship, and the high-quality raw materials from which they are manufactured.”

Geographically, Folsom culture spread eastward from the Rocky Mountains across the Great Plains. It extended from North Dakota to Mexico. It seems to have been centered, however, along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

With regard to Wyoming, by 8830 BCE, Folsom hunters were camping on the floodplain of an arroyo in Agate Basin. They trapped, killed and butchered eight buffalo. They lived in hide-covered structures which used bison ribs as tent pegs.

By 8750 BCE, Folsom people were occupying the Hanson site in the northern Bighorn Basin. The people were living in circular structures. The floors of the lodges were covered with a layer of sand. In his book Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains, George Frison reports:

“The site was apparently a campsite and suggests that many of the usual campsite activities were going on. The most obvious activity was flint knapping and the site provides evidence—from core reduction to tools and finished projectile points—of all the basic processes.”

Frison also reports:

“Projectile point manufacture involved bi-face reduction to a final stage characterized by a blunt, ground distal end and a concave base with a carefully prepared striking platform for channel flake removal.”

Careful striking would then remove the long flake and provide the point with the characteristic Folsom groove. Archaeologists have found evidence of many failures in the final production of Folsom points at this site.

In 7950 BCE, Indian people who were using Folsom tools are occupying the Rattlesnake Pass site (48CR4520).

Cody Complex:

The Cody complex is found in the Northern Great Plains area. In his entry on the Cody Complex in A Dictionary of Archaeology, William Billeck writes:

“The tool assemblage consists of projectile points, flake tools, scrapers, gravers, wedges, choppers, bi-faces, hammer stones, and bone tools that are often found in bison kill and processing sites.”

By 8500 BCE, Indian people from the Cody Complex were spending the warmer months in the Rocky Mountains. Here they repaired and manufactured tools which were used for hunting and for cleaning hides. In the winter, they moved to lower elevations. They were hunting bear, bighorn sheep, deer, and rabbit. According to anthropologist Carroll Riley, in Rio del Norte: People of the Upper Rio Grande From Earliest Times to the Pueblo Revolt:

“Cody stone technology suggests more diverse hunting of a variety of small game.”

By 7076 BCE, Indian people using Cody complex tools were using the Horner site. This was a buffalo kill site or a butchering area. The bison were killed in the fall using a corral at the river’s edge.

Agate Basin:

 By 8480 BCE, Indian people were using the Agate Basin site for buffalo hunting. Bison in groups of 10 to 20 animals were apparently driven into the arroyo bottom. The hunters would be stationed at strategic points above the animals in order to harvest them.

By 8000 BCE, the cultural complex which archaeologists call Agate Basin extended into the Northern Plains region. These Agate Basin people were big game hunters whose subsistence strategies included bison trapping. The Agate Basin points were long, narrow, unfluted lanceolate forms. The quality of the lithic work was very good. Archaeologist Sandra Morris, in her University of Montana M.A. Professional Paper Prehistoric Cultural Resources of the Whitetail Pipestone Area, Jefferson County, Montana: An Overview and Implications for Cultural Resource Managers, reports:

“The Agate Basin projectile point morphology is distinct: the form is a long and narrow leaf shape, with no notches.”

Agate Basin appears to be a continuation of Goshen and Folsom in which bison is the economic mainstay.

By 8000 BCE, Indian people at the Agate Basin site had a dog-wolf hybrid.

Two Moon Shelter:

By 8060 BCE, Indian people were using the Two Moon Shelter (48BH1827) in the Bighorn Mountains. In an article in Mammoth Trumpet, Floyd Largent explains:

“A rockshelter is basically a rocky overhang that lacks an extensive interior cave system.”

The Two Moon rockshelter has a protected interior of about 45 square meters with another 30 square meters of flat area just outside of the dripline.

Medicine Creek Lodge Site:

By 7500 BCE, Indian people are now occupying the Medicine Lodge Creek site (48BH499) on the western flanks of the Bighorn Mountains. The site is located at an elevation of 4,800 feet. Indian people at the Medicine Creek Lodge site were hunting small mammals -–mostly bushy-tail wood rats commonly known as packrats (Neotoma cineria). They were also hunting some deer, mountain sheep, and buffalo. They were also using grinding stones to process gathered plant foods.

By 7360 BCE, the people at the Medicine Creek Lodge site were using a Cody Complex tool tradition (see above).

Mummy Cave:

By 7280 BCE, Indian people had begun to live in Mummy Cave (48PA201), a west-facing natural room. This site is located in northwest Wyoming. They were using a side-notched projectile point. Archaeologist Douglas MacDonald, in his book Montana Before History: 11,000 Years of Hunter-Gatherers in the Rockies and Plains, writes:

“Hunters of bighorn sheep utilized the cave during the entire span of its use.”

Nets may have been used to trap the sheep.

Sheep Mountain:

By 7000 BCE, at Sheep Mountain in the Absaroka range Indian people were using nets to harvest game, including mountain goats, deer, and rabbit. They were using a net that was 200 feet long and 6 feet high made from two-ply cord twisted from juniper bark fibers. In his book The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians: Before the Coming of the Europeans, Philip Kopper reports:

“The hunters who made the Sheep Mountain net probably used it by stringing it across a game trail in the rugged mountains and waiting for animals to pass, or by hanging it across a natural bottleneck and driving game into it.”

Granite Creek Rockshelter:

By 6000 BCE, Indian people were using the Granite Creek rockshelter (48BH330) in the Bighorn Mountains. The rockshelter is 85 feet long and 18 feet deep at its deepest point. This was an animal processing area which was used repeatedly by hunting groups for several thousand years. Most of the stone tools at this site were made from local materials.

Note: the information in parenthesis following the name of the site is the Smithsonian Designation System. In this system of recording archaeological sites, the first number refers to the state; this is followed by letters which refer to the county; and then a number indicating its order in being recorded. Thus 5LP 10, means that the site is in Colorado (5th state when the states are listed alphabetically), La Plata County (LP), and was the 10th site recorded in La Plata county in the State Archaeologist’s office.


Ancient America: How Old is It?

Archaeology in the United States is often said to have started in 1764 when amateur archaeologist Thomas Jefferson had his African slaves dig up hundreds of Monacan skeletons so that he could learn more about their mortuary customs. During the next century and a half, many ancient American Indian sites would be dug up by archaeologists, both amateur and professional, who were unable to determine the actual age of these sites. There was lots of speculation about the age of these sites, but very little hard data regarding their antiquity. During the twentieth century, however, this changed with the development of a number of scientific methods for determining the age of an archaeological site.


 In 1901, University of Arizona astronomer A. E. Douglass began doing research on tree rings which developed into an archaeological dating method known as dendrochronology. Douglass was studying the effects of sunspots on climate. Since he did not have weather records long enough to be tested for correlation with the 22 year sunspot cycle, Douglass turned to the rings of coniferous trees as potential proxy climate indicators.

From the perspective of archaeological data, there are two basic categories of trees: complacent and sensitive. Complacent trees have rings of uniform width and therefore have no use for dating. In sensitive trees environmental conditions influence the width of the annual rings. Within broad limits, sensitive trees in any geographic region exhibit the same growth patterns. Since the width of the rings varies from year to year, an overall chronological sequence can be established. Material from an archaeological site can be compared to this sequence and it can be determined when the tree died.

In his entry on dendrochronology in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, Jeffrey Dean writes:

“Thus, dendrochronology became the first of many independent dating techniques used in archaeology.”

Over the past century, some 50,000 tree-ring dates from about 5,000 sites in the American Southwest have produced the finest prehistoric chronology in the world. Use of dendrochronology in dating archaeological sites has spread from the American Southwest to other areas of North America and to Europe.

Tree-ring dating is a straight-forward procedure, at least in principle. In practice, it can be astonishingly difficult. It is not simply a matter of counting tree-rings. Jeffrey Dean explains:

“The fundamental principle of dendrochronology is crossdating, the matching of identical patterns of variation in ring morphology among trees in a particular area.”

Crossdating is generally done via covariation of ring widths. According to Dean:

“A tree-ring date is determined by finding the unique point at which the ring-width sequence of a sample matches the pattern of a dated chronology.”

In other words, dendrochronology is used to create a master chronology of the tree ring patterns for a specific region. The find from a particular site can then be compared to patterns from the chronology and in this way the age of the wood is determined.

In some sites, such as the ancient pueblos in the American Southwest, dendrochronology may yield a number of different dates. For example, in building a structure, the builders will use poles that they have just cut (dendrochronology will show this date); they may also re-used poles from an earlier structure (dendocrhonology will thus show a different date); they may use a tree that died naturally (again a different date will result). The most recent dendeochronology date thus shows that the structure was completed about this time.

Summarizing the importance of dendrochronology to archaeology, Brian Fagan writes in his book Quest for the Past: Great Discoveries in Archaeology:

“Tree-ring chronologies are extremely accurate, but they are limited to relatively recent times, and to areas with well-defined rainfall patterns.”

In The Atlas of World Archaeology, Paul Bahn puts it this way:

“Although dendrochronology can provide a reliable method of dating, its use is limited to areas where timber was much used and/or where it has been preserved by dry or damp conditions. It has had its most impressive results in the American Southwest and Scandinavia.”

Another area where dendrochronology has been very useful has been in Ireland. Irish archaeologist Laurence Flanagan writes in his book Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts:

“Ireland proved to be an ideal subject for dendrochronology, because timbers of oak were available from all time periods. An overlapping chronology was eventually established that stretched back from the present day to nearly 6000 BC, so that substantial pieces of wood from any point in this period could be accurately dated.”

Dendrochronology in Ireland, and in other areas, has also been useful in fine-tuning other chronometric dating methods. In Ireland, for example, Laurence Flanagan reports:

“It was also used to calibrate Irish radiocarbon dates, which made possible a high-precision radiocarbon dating.”

Radiocarbon Dating:

 Another major advance in chronometric dating came with the development of radiocarbon dating. This dating method was developed in 1949 by Chicago chemist Willard Libby as a result of the Manhattan Project (i.e. the development of the atomic bomb during World War II). It is based on the principle that radioactive carbon in the atmosphere is absorbed by all living things. At death this absorption stops and a steady decay of carbon begins. Since the half-life of the radioactive carbon is known (5,568 years), measuring the amount of carbon remaining can determine the age of the material.

There are a couple of limitations regarding radiocarbon dating. First, only materials which were once alive—wood, plant matter, bones, etc.—can be used. Metal and stone cannot be dated with radiocarbon.

Second, it is generally used to date materials less than 40,000 years old. Beyond this time, the amount of remaining radioactive carbon is so small that it is difficult to measure. However, the use of an accelerator mass spectrometer allows dating of older and smaller samples. With this, materials up to 100,000 years old can be dated.

Radiocarbon dates are not as precise as those obtained through dendrochronology and are given in archaeological reports as estimates. Radiocarbon dates are often accompanied with a + or – estimate showing the accuracy of the dated material. It is common for radiocarbon results to be published as “years BP” where 0 BP (“before present”) is 1950 CE.

With regard to the importance of radiocarbon dating, Stuart Fiedel writes in his book Prehistory of the Americas:

“It allowed archaeologists to transcend their former obsession with chronology. Given a framework of absolute dates, they could move on to compare the cultural sequences in different areas, to investigate the cause of variation in the rates of cultural development.”

Radiocarbon dating today is the most widely used dating technique in archaeology. With regard to the impact of radiometric dating in archaeology, Andrew Moore, writing in Archaeology, says:

“Advances in the precision of radiometric dating are radically changing our views of the timing of key events in the human timeline.”

Moore goes on to write:

“In ways that past generations of archaeologists could never have imagined, we are able to refine our knowledge not just of what happened, but when it happened. These new insights, some subtle, and some dramatic, will continue to clarify our human past.”

Daniel Weiss, also writing in Archaeology, reports on a potential problem for radiocarbon dating:

“The use of radiocarbon dating, which allows archaeologists to estimate the age of human, plant, and animal remains, may soon be complicated by fossil fuel emissions.”

Fossil fuels which are millions of years old are putting carbon into the atmosphere which contains no radioactive carbon and this carbon is absorbed into organic materials. By 2050 it is estimated that the radiocarbon date for a brand new garment made from organic materials such as cotton will produce the same radiocarbon date as a garment worn in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Obsidian Hydration:

 Another dating method which has been used to date many American sites is obsidian hydration which can be used for dating sites from 200 to 100,000 years old. When a piece of obsidian is chipped to make a tool, the freshly exposed surface begins to absorb water at a rate that depends on the source of the obsidian, the temperature, and the humidity. In their report Prehistoric Use of the Coso Volcanic Field, archaeologists Amy Gilreath and William Hildebrandt write:

“That moisture penetrates volcanic glass at a predictable and, hence, quantifiable rate is at the foundation of obsidian hydration dating.”

By examining a thin section of the tool under a microscope and measuring the thickness of the hydration layer, the date of manufacture can be calculated.

Obsidian hydration dating has been used primarily in California and the Great Basin. In Mesoamerica, it has generally been used to supplement other dating methods.

Ancient America: The Dakotas, BCE

The Dakotas—the modern states of North and South Dakota—are a part of the Northern Plains, an area which was buffalo country from the time of de-glaciation until modern agriculture in the nineteenth century. A few of the archaeological findings regarding the Dakotas BCE are described below.

Early Pre-contact Period:

The time from first settlement by Indian people following de-glaciation until the climate changes about 9,000 years ago is called the Early Pre-contact Period by some archaeologists and the Paleo-Indian Period by others. Indian people during this era were hunting now extinct mega-fauna, including the mammoth and pre-historic bison. Some of the archaeological sites from this period include:

Lange-Ferguson: About 9100 BCE, Indian people using Clovis technology killed and butchered at least two mammoths at the Lange-Ferguson site in South Dakota.

Ray Long: About 9000 BCE, Indian people occupied the Ray Long site (39FA65) in South Dakota. They were using spear points which are lanceolate with narrow, straight to concave bases. These points had ground edges near the bases.

Jim Pitts: About 8200 BCE, Indian people were using the Jim Pitts site near the Black Hills area known as the Racetrack. The people were hunting bison and mule deer. They were using Goshen, Folsom, Agate Basin, Cody, and Fishtail points.

Middle Pre-contact Period:

The era which archaeologists call the Middle Pre-contact Period begins about 6800 BCE with a hot, dry Altithermal. Much of the area is abandoned by Indian people because of the lack of game. The Altithermal began to moderate about 3000 BCE and both the animal and human populations increased. During the last portion of the Middle Pre-contact (about 1000 BCE), the use of the tipi as a primary domicile increased. In addition, there is increased evidence of domesticated dog.

Benz: About 6000 BCE, Indian people with Cody Complex tools began to occupy the Benz site on the Knife River in North Dakota. The Cody Complex, which included an assemblage of projectile points, scrapers, gravers, wedges, choppers, hammer stones, and bone tools, was associated with bison kill and processing sites.

Liking Bison: By about 4730 BCE, Indian people were using the Liking Bison site in South Dakota. This was a bison kill site in which the hunters drove the animals into a gully which is about 3-5 feet wide and 2-3 feet deep.

Beaver Creek Rock Shelter: About 4700 BCE, Indian people were using the Beaver Creek Rock Shelter (39CU779) in present-day Wind Cave National Park. Archaeologist Douglas MacDonald, in his book Montana Before History: 11,000 Years of Hunter-Gatherers in the Rockies and Plains, writes: “Among the animal remains from the site are a variety of frogs and reptiles, suggesting that the arid conditions of the Altithermal had not dried out this north-facing rock shelter. In addition, remains of deer, bison, and pronghorn indicate a diverse diet for Early Archaic hunter-gatherers at the site.”

By 4570 BCE, the Indian people at this site were using side-notched projectile points. By 2700 BCE, they were hunting bison, deer, and pronghorn. At this time, they were using McKean projectile points.

Besant Phase: By 90 BCE, in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Alberta, the time period which archaeologists call the Besant Phase begins. Indian people at this time were sophisticated buffalo hunters and were engaging in other big game hunting. Archaeologist George Frison, writing in the Handbook of North American Indians, reports: “Besant hunters were apparently still using the atlatl and dart, and their projectile points are distinctive in morphology and manufacture technology, utilizing the best available raw materials. They may have been the most sophisticated bison-hunting group on the Northwestern Plains in pre-horse times judging from evidence recovered in eastern Wyoming.”

They were using ground stone tools as well as side-notched projectile points. At some sites on the Upper Missouri River and at some sites in Alberta, the people appear to have used ceramics which suggests that they were in contact with Woodland Indian groups to the east.

James River Area: About 25 BCE, an epidemic struck the people living along the James River area and killed at least 28 people, mostly infants, children, and elders. The partially cremated remains of the dead were buried in a deep pit lined with hides.