Paleo-Indians or Paleoamericans, were the first peoples who entered, and subsequently inhabited, the Americas during the final glacial episodes of the late Pleistocene period. The prefix “paleo-” comes from the Greek adjective palaios, meaning “old” or “ancient”.
Indigenous Americans had (and have) rich traditions concerning their origins, but until the late 19th century, most outsiders’ knowledge about the Native American past was speculative at best. Among the more popular misconceptions were those holding that the first residents of the continent had been members of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel or refugees from the lost island of Atlantis, that their descendents had developed the so-called Mound Builder culture, and that Native Americans had later overrun and destroyed the Mound Builder civilization. These erroneous and overtly racist beliefs were often used to rationalize the destruction or displacement of indigenous Americans. Such beliefs were not dispelled until the 1890s, when Cyrus Thomas, a pioneering archaeologist employed by the Smithsonian Institution, demonstrated conclusively that the great effigy mounds, burial mounds, and temple mounds of the Northeast and Southeast culture areas had been built by Native Americans.
Asia and North America remained connected until about 12,000 years ago. Although most of the routes used by the Paleo-Indians are difficult to investigate because they are now under water or deeply buried or have been destroyed by erosion and other geological processes, research has divulged a variety of information about their lives and cultures.
Researchers continue to study and discuss the specifics of Paleo-Indian migration to and throughout the Americas, including the exact dates and routes traveled. The traditional theory holds that these early migrants moved into Beringia between eastern Siberia and present-day Alaska 17,000 years ago, at a time when the Quaternary glaciation significantly lowered sea levels. These people are believed to have followed herds of now-extinct pleistocene megafauna along ice-free corridors that stretched between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets.
An alternative proposed scenario involves migration – either on foot or using primitive boats – down the Pacific coast to South America.Evidence of the latter would since have been covered by a sea-level rise of hundreds of meters following the last ice age.
Archaeologists contend that Paleo-Indians migrated out of Beringia (western Alaska), between c. 40,000 and c. 16,500 years ago. This time range remains a source of substantial debate. The few areas of agreement achieved to date are the origin from Central Asia, with widespread habitation of the Americas during the end of the last glacial period, or more specifically what is known as the late glacial maximum, around 16,000–13,000 years before present. However, alternative theories about the origins of Paleoindians exist, including migration from Europe. What can be said about them is- they all had similar cultures as the Hindus of India.
Sites in Alaska (East Beringia) are where some of the earliest evidence has been found of Paleo-Indians, followed by archaeological sites in northern British Columbia, western Alberta and the Old Crow Flats region in the Yukon. The Paleo-Indian would eventually flourish all over the Americas.
These peoples were spread over a wide geographical area; thus there were regional variations in lifestyles. However, all the individual groups shared a common style of stone tool production, making knapping styles and progress identifiable. This early Paleo-Indian period’s lithic reduction tool adaptations have been found across the Americas, utilized by highly mobile bands consisting of approximately 20 to 60 members of an extended family. Food would have been plentiful during the few warm months of the year. Lakes and rivers were teeming with many species of fish, birds and aquatic mammals. Nuts, berries and edible roots could be found in the forests and marshes. The fall would have been a busy time because foodstuffs would have to be stored and clothing made ready for the winter. During the winter, coastal fishing groups moved inland to hunt and trap fresh food and furs.
Late ice-age climatic changes caused plant communities and animal populations to change. Groups moved from place to place as preferred resources were depleted and new supplies were sought. Small bands utilized hunting and gathering during the spring and summer months, then broke into smaller direct family groups for the fall and winter. Family groups moved every 3–6 days, possibly traveling up to 360 km (220 mi) a year. Diets were often sustaining and rich in protein due to successful hunting. Clothing was made from a variety of animal hides that were also used for shelter construction. During much of the Early and Middle Paleo-Indian periods, inland bands are thought to have subsisted primarily through hunting now-extinct megafauna. Large Pleistocene mammals were the giant beaver, steppe wisent, musk ox, mastodons, woolly mammoths and ancient reindeer (early caribou)
The Clovis culture, appearing around 11,500 BCE (c. 13,500 BP), undoubtedly did not rely exclusively on megafauna for subsistence.Instead, they employed a mixed foraging strategy that included smaller terrestrial game, aquatic animals, and a variety of flora. Paleo-Indian groups were efficient hunters and carried a variety of tools. These included highly efficient fluted-style spear points, as well as microblades used for butchering and hide processing. Projectile points and hammerstones made from many sources are found traded or moved to new locations. Stone tools were traded and/or left behind from North Dakota and Northwest Territories, to Montana and Wyoming. Trade routes also have been found from the British Columbia Interior to the coast of California.
The glaciers that covered the northern half of the continent began to gradually melt, exposing new land for occupation around 17,500–14,500 years ago. At the same time as this was occurring, worldwide extinctions among the large mammals began. In North America, camelids and equids eventually died off, the latter not to reappear on the continent until the Spanish reintroduced the horse near the end of the 15th century CE. As the Quaternary extinction event was happening, the Late Paleo-Indians would have relied more on other means of subsistence.
From c. 10,500 – c. 9,500 BCE (c. 12,500 – c. 11,500 BP), the broad-spectrum big game hunters of the great plains began to focus on a single animal species: the bison (an early cousin of the American bison).The earliest known of these bison-oriented hunting traditions is the Folsom tradition. Folsom peoples traveled in small family groups for most of the year, returning yearly to the same springs and other favored locations on higher ground. There they would camp for a few days, perhaps erecting a temporary shelter, making and/or repairing some stone tools, or processing some meat, then moving on. Paleo-Indians were not numerous and population densities were quite low.
- American History Journal