The First North Americans

North America during the last glacial period. [Source]

For today’s post we’re going back, waaaaaaay back, to one of the times when the stereotype of Canada being nothing but a frozen wasteland was actually spot-on. When we think about the Ice Age today, we are usually referring to the last glacial period, (from around 120,000 years ago to 11,500 years ago). There have been five known ice ages during Earth’s history. Canada was underneath solid ice throughout most of the last glacial period. When the country was beneath the Laurentide and Cordilleran sheets, human life was non-existent for the longest time. However, archaeologists have discovered that humans were in North America just before the glacial retreat or the Holocene epoch (shown in the picture above) happened. What was life like for humans just before and after the retreat?

Early North American Migration (15,000-13,000 years ago)

Please Note: For simplicity’s sake, I have used modern names to describe geographical areas.

Asia and North America used to connected by an expanse of ice-free land. During the last glacial period, oceans began to shrink because there was no melt water to replace what was being lost to the ever-growing glaciers. It was just too cold. As sea levels fell, shorelines grew. Once exposed to the air, the newly exposed land was able to grow grass, small lakes began to form, and the area became able to support life. This is how Beringia was formed. Stretching from Siberia to Alaska, prior to the glacial melt the reduced sea levels allowed for this land-based connection between the two continents.

Around 15,000 years ago* humans began to migrate from Asia to North America by living in and traveling across this land bridge. Despite being ice-free, life on this land bridge and making the full journey would have been very difficult. The Cordilleran Ice Sheet would have loomed over them and made the passage bitter cold. Alaska and the Yukon were first two areas populated. This sort of travel became impossible though around 10,000 years ago as the land bridge was gradually filled in by the sea.

* Exact dates for when people first migrated to North America are still heavily debated. Around 15,000 years ago is the general consensus.

Why did they come to North America? The most popular theory is the most simple: food. Late Pleistocene hunters were nomadic and they followed mega-fauna, (large animals such as woolly mammoths, mastodons, ancient bison, and—I kid you not—giant beavers). As these animals crossed from one continent to the next, so did humans. Archaeological findings like man-made tools and weapons dating from that time provide evidence for this. These tools were key to human survival. For example, bone needles were created to sew warm clothes and spears were used to take down large game.

Mastodon Skull found in Dawson, Yukon (1904). Source: Yukon Archives. Walter R. Hamilton fonds, #17.

These early North Americans lived so long ago that only traces of their lives remain. What we do know about them comes from archaeologists excavating and studying three types of physical evidence:

  1. Distinctive stone spear points and stone tools
  2. The bones of the animals that people hunted
  3. Traces of the camp sites that they once inhabited

Late Pleistocene hunters are known as the Clovis People or “Paleo-Indians.” Between 1932 to 1937, stone tools and spear points or “Clovis points” from 13,000 years ago were excavated near Clovis, New Mexico. Several other tool sites were discovered during the 1930s and since then around 10,000 Clovis points have been found across over 1,500 locations. Venezuela is the southern most location where they have been excavated.

Since these excavations, the “Clovis First” belief has been the leading theory with regards to the question of who the first North Americans were. What adds weight to this theory though is genetic data; around 80% of all living Indigenous populations in both North and South America are direct descendants of the Clovis People. However, over the last three decades there has been growing support for alternative theories regarding who was first. Hunting tools unlike what the Clovis People used have been found, suggesting that other cultures existed either before or during their time frame.

An artistic recreation of humans migrating to North America via the Bering Strait. Source: De Agostini/Getty Images

Mega-fauna was crucial to Paleo-Indians. Aside from providing meat for weeks (or longer, if dried adequately for the winter), they utilized mega-fauna bones, tusks, hides, and fur in many ways: clothing, tools, shelters, and “household” objects. Despite this, archaeologists believe that the diet of Paleo-Indians depended largely on plant foraging. This links them with other early human “hunter-gatherer” cultures. It is hard to pinpoint exactly which plants they would have ate, but it is believed that their diet would have varied depending on the season and that wild greens, roots, tubers, seeds, nuts, and fruits would have made up the bulk of what Paleo-Indians ate. This undercuts the popular theory that Paleo-Indians were behind the extinction of saber-toothed cats, mammoths, mastodons, and other mega-fauna of that era. On a latter note, they also would have hunted small mammals and fished.

An artistic recreation of Paleo-Indian shelters. [Source]

Being nomads, Paleo-Indians had to have simple, temporary structures that could be easily taken down, moved, and put back up. Evidence of these houses shows that they were small, cone-shaped, wooden lodges. The poles were covered with plant material, mud, and possibly animal hides to keep the occupants inside warm and dry. Sometimes large rocks were utilized both inside and outside of the lodges for additional support. Right next to their homes would have been food-drying racks and possibly windbreakers. Household items such as moccasins, baskets, sandals, mats, and fur robes have been discovered. Aside from hunting tools, others that have been found include scrapers, needles, blades, and hand-powered drills.  If the tools were not made of bones, then they were constructed from chert or obsidian. These light-weight tools are emblematic of a nomadic culture.

Archaeologists believe Paleo-Indians moved around frequently, every 3-6 days. During the warmer seasons of spring and summer, small bands came other to maximize hunting and gathering potential. During the fall and winter though, it was more everyone-for-themselves as these large groups broke up into small family-based bands. These family bands could cover up to 360 km in a year—no wonder they spread from Canada to Venezuela!

Artifacts found with the Anzick Skeleton. [Source]

In southern Ontario and Montana, two different Clovis burial sites have been discovered. The former is a cremation burial site; the latter is the oldest known burial site in North America. Known as the Anzick Skeleton and first located in 1968, the grave contains the remains of a boy who died around 1.5 years old. He was buried with 125 objects, including Clovis points and antler tools. The skeleton and the artifacts were covered with red ochre powder, a natural pigment, which indicates a burial ceremony and ties them to other early Asian cultures. According to radiocarbon dating, the skeleton is roughly 12,600 years old and the objects found are consistent with Clovis technology. His cause of death is unknown.

What does the Anzick skeleton tell us about Paleo-Indians? First and foremost, that his ancestors descended from Asia, which adds to the Clovis First/North-Americans-came-from-Asia debate. Also, that the Clovis treated their dead with respect and had extensive burial rituals as it is clear that he was lovingly buried. The overall lack of burial sites suggests that Paleo-Indians may have used above-ground burials more often than not.

Of the few Clovis remains that have been found, none suggest the presence of warfare. None of the remains contain marks of violence such as broken heads or spear point marks embedded into bodies. Furthermore, their camp sites do not appear to be strategically placed; they were built at random because they were following plant and animal resources. This is not really a surprise. What exactly would have large groups of Paleo-Indians fought over? There were no political structures, no land claims, early North American lives revolved around survival and war would have been completely counter-intuitive to that.

* Of course this undercuts the argument that humans and war go hand-in-hand and that war is a natural result of human affairs, but that’s a whole other issue.

Possible migration routes from Siberia into North America. [Source]

So what happened to the Clovis people? “Vanished” gets used a lot, but that word does not fully describe what exactly happened. Between 11,500 to 10,500 years ago, major changes began to occur. The dawn of the Holocene epoch meant that the climate was warming up. Hotter temperatures caused sea levels to rise. Plants began to change and grow where they had not before. Most significantly at around 11,000 years ago, the mega-fauna of North America went extinct. 500 years later is the approximate date of the Clovis disappearance. Some claim that the Clovis people over-hunted the mega-fauna and in doing so sealed their own fates. Others argue that the small numbers of people with primitive stone weapons could not have killed off all the mega-fauna in such a short amount of time, especially across two continents. They suggest that humans brought diseases with them and that may have caused the general extinction.

Regardless, it’s not that the Clovis People all died off, rather their original culture faded away as it evolved into different ones. Warmer temperatures changed plant growth, which led to early North Americans developing new agricultural and domestication techniques. Nomadic cultures still existed, but with agriculture came settlement for certain groups. Essentially, different cultures emerged to suit different locations. The extinction of mega-fauna meant they had to adapt their diets and tools to meet the new climate and environments of North America. So they did not vanish, they evolved.


Fun Fact!

Geologists define the last 2.6 million years or so as the Quaternary Period. During this time, ice ages were long-term reductions in the Earth’s temperature which resulted in the presence of continental ice sheets. We are still in the Quaternary period so…

…technically the last ice age hasn’t ended. Ice ages contain both glacial and interglacial periods; the latter is what we’re in. (Moderate global temperatures exist, but intact ice sheets remain, like the ones in Antarctica, the Arctic, and Greenland).


Sources

Carman, John, and Harding, Anthony, Ancient Warfare: Archaeological Perspectives. The History Press. England. (2013).

Huckel, Bruce B. Clovis Caches: Recent Discoveries and New Research. New Mexico. UNM Press (2014).

“First Peoples,” Learn NC. UNC School of Education. Accessed from: http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-twoworlds/1675

“Holocene epoch,” History of Life on Earth, BBC. October 2014. Accessed from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/history_of_the_earth/Holocene

“Ice age” History of Life on Earth, BBC. October 2014. Accessed from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/ancient_earth/Last_glacial_period

Mann, Charles C. “The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America’s First Culture,” Smithsonian Magazine. November 2013. Accessed from: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-clovis-point-and-the-discovery-of-americas-first-culture-3825828/

Starbuck, David R. The archeology of New Hampshire: exploring 10,000 years in the Granite State. University Press of New England. (2006).

“The Paleoindian Period: 13,000 (or earlier) to 6000 B.C.” Peoples of the Mesha Verde Region. Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. 2014. Accessed from: https://www.crowcanyon.org/EducationProducts/peoples_mesa_verde/paleoindian_overview.asp

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4 thoughts on “The First North Americans

  1. Matthew says:

    Really interesting post. I get the debate over whether the clovis were first but I kind of always assumed that the whole North Americans originally came from Asia theory was universally agreed upon.

    I see that mammoth skeleton was discovered in the Yukon. Did Klondike gold miners find lots of fossils by accident?

    Like

    • cadeauca says:

      Thank you!

      I thought it was too, until I found studies that attempts to argue that Europeans were the first North Americans. It’s called the Solutrean hypothesis and basically prehistoric tools found in North America are very similar to Solutrean ones (a Stone Age European culture). They conclude that Europeans either sailed here or walked across a frozen Atlantic Ocean 10,000 years before anyone came via the Bering Strait. Until there’s, you know, actual evidence of this, I’m personally going to stick with Asia being the original source.

      Did they ever! They probably found more fossils than gold. For more info, click here: http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/publications/ice_age_klondike_2011.pdf

      Like

    • cadeauca says:

      Hahaha, thank you for reading! I like to make sure I provide as full a picture as possible, so lots of research is sometimes necessary. Especially in this case, none of the sources were very thorough so I had to consult many websites to piece the the information together.

      Liked by 1 person

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