Paleo-Indian Culture Flourishes in North America

The Paleo-Indians, the earliest colonists of the New World and their late Pleistocene and early Holocene descendants, originated from multiple points and displayed highly varied technology and lifestyles.

Summary of Event

Originally, the term “Paleo-Indian” referred to the earliest inhabitants of the New World, especially those first recognized in the American Southwest during archaeological excavations in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Largely on the basis of these and later excavations, which were conducted in New Mexico, Arizona, and sites in the Great Plains region, Paleo-Indian was defined to encompass a specific lithic (stone tool) technology signified by the distinctive “fluted” Clovis projectile point, named after a small town in New Mexico near which this type of point was found. Because Clovis points were often found in apparent association with Pleistocene big-game animals, especially mammoth, the Paleo-Indian lifeway was thought to be centered on the systematic predation of now-extinct Ice Age megafauna. By the late 1950’s, the term Paleo-Indian came to include the presumed descendants of the Clovis point makers, namely the Folsom and so-called Plano complex “cultures” of the Great Plains and other groups from eastern North America, notably the Dalton complex of the American Midsouth and Southeast. Like their putative Clovis forebears, these later Paleo-Indian groups were thought to be almost exclusively big-game hunters.

By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, it was widely accepted that Clovis was the New World’s founding population and the direct ancestor of all other Paleo-Indian cultures in the New World. Based on numerous radiocarbon dates, mainly from western North America, Clovis appeared to date c. 9500-9000 b.c.e., with the culture’s initial crossing of the Bering Strait occurring c. 500 radiocarbon years earlier. Clovis was presumed to have descended from a single founding population whose homeland was northeastern Asia, despite the absence of the distinctive Clovis points and related forms in artifact assemblages from the Arctic, Subarctic, or Siberia.

Because of the apparent synchrony between the rapid spread of Clovis and the widespread extinction of Ice Age megafauna, a causal relationship was presumed to exist between that extinction and Clovis. Hence, the understanding of Clovis was recast as a highly specialized and mobile, rapidly moving hunting culture that played a direct role in a hemisphere-wide extinction scenario. Moreover, because of its highly visible trail of apparently standardized and readily recognizable artifacts, Clovis came to be considered as a single culture with a uniform technology and associated lifeway, essentially analogous to the Magdalenian of France or the Solutrean of the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe.

This characterization of Clovis culture and the timing of its arrival in the New World began to unravel in the mid- to late 1970’s, however, with the discovery of sites such as Meadowcroft Rockshelter in southwestern Pennsylvania and Monte Verde in Chile. These two localities yielded artifacts that were both radically different from Clovis material culture and recovered from radiocarbon-dated contexts at least 1,000 to 2,500 radiocarbon years earlier than Clovis’s presumed crossing of the Bering Strait. As Monte Verde lies outside the North American focus of this discussion, the following shall concentrate on Meadowcroft Rockshelter.

Meadowcroft Rockshelter is a deeply stratified, multicomponent site on the north bank of Cross Creek, a third-order tributary of the Ohio River, southwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The eleven strata at Meadowcroft, which represent the longest occupational sequence in the New World, yielded a remarkable corpus of artifactual, floral, and faunal data anchored by fifty-two stratigraphically consistent radiocarbon dates. Human use of the site minimally extends from c. 12,500-12,000 b.c.e. to 1776 c.e. The earliest occupants at Meadowcroft ascribe to the Miller complex, a pioneer population of generalized hunter-gatherers with a sophisticated lithic technology based on the production of blade tools produced from polyhedral blade cores and also characterized by the manufacture of a distinctive unfluted projectile point called the Miller Lanceolate. Significantly, the extant paleoenvironmental data indicate that the site’s earliest inhabitants operated in an environment not radically different from that of present times.

In addition to Meadowcroft, other pre-Clovis sites have been discovered at widely separated locations in North America, including Cactus Hill and Saltville in Virginia, Topper in South Carolina, the Nenana complex sites in Alaska, and a cluster of Chesrow complex sites in Wisconsin. All these localities are as old as or significantly older than Clovis, and none appears to be related to that entity. Significantly, the lifeways reflected at Cactus Hill and Saltville reflect the same sort of generalized hunting and gathering pattern evidenced at Meadowcroft.

Based on data from archaeological sites that are contemporaneous with and substantially older than the Clovis culture, it is now clear that the first Paleo-Indians entered the New World well before Clovis and the previously accepted arrival date of c. 10,000 b.c.e. Indeed, based on archaeological, linguistic, and mitochondrial DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) evidence, it appears that the first Paleo-Indians may have arrived around the time of the last glacial maximum, which occurred c. 18,000 b.c.e.

Whenever they arrived, these first Americans clearly belonged to several distinct cultural traditions and may well have originated from different parts of northeastern Asia. Additionally, their percolation into the New World appears not to have been a single movement but rather a series of peopling incursions, some of which doubtless failed to survive. In addition to the traditional pedestrian route across the interior of the glacially exposed Bering Land Bridge, a combination of land and sea travel may also have occurred on the southern margin of the bridge. Thereafter, movement south could have occurred through the so-called ice-free corridor between the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets as well as down the Pacific coast, again via a combination of land and sea travel.

The earliest Paleo-Indians were few in number, and hence their sites are widely scattered and difficult to identify. Although it is clear that at least some of these groups exploited big game, it appears that all groups also took a variety of smaller animals and doubtless exploited plants and aquatic resources. Hunting efficiency was enhanced by the atlatl (spear thrower), which has an ancient pedigree in the Old World, but the ultimate success of the colonization effort was due to a highly elaborated perishable technology that included plant fiber products (basketry, textiles, cordage, netting, and sandals) and items fashioned of wood, leather, and other nondurable materials. These perishable artifacts formed an integral element of the technology of the first Paleo-Indians who entered the New World. By no later than 13,000-12,500 b.c.e., at least some of these colonists were sufficiently numerous and regionally adapted to live in some permanent settlements such as Monte Verde, while others retained a much more mobile lifestyle.

By the onset of Clovis times, now more tightly fixed at c. 9200-9000 b.c.e., virtually the entire New World was populated, albeit thinly. Interestingly, most of the excavated early Paleo-Indian sites are large mammal kill or, more likely, scavenging localities. Large Clovis-era multiseasonal campsites such as Gault in Texas, Shoop in Pennsylvania, Thunderbird and Williamson in Virginia, and Carson-Conn-Short in Tennessee attest to the rapid increase of population in later Paleo-Indian times.

By c. 8800-8500 b.c.e., Clovis in western North America had been succeeded by makers of much thinner fluted points called Folsom; in turn, these populations were followed by makers of a wide array of often delicately pressure flaked points collectively called Plano. These later Paleo-Indians were also hunter-gatherers who manifested varying degrees of mobility and subsistence strategies, which in many areas included the systematic production of both extinct (Bison antiquus) and modern (Bison bison) bison, usually via communal hunting techniques.

Despite a focus on bison, these later Paleo-Indian groups also exploited a wide array of medium-sized to small game as well as plants, waterfowl, and other nonmegafaunal resources. Indeed, many of these groups led broad-spectrum foraging lifeways that were virtually identical to those of the generally later Western Archaic populations that replaced them c. 8000-7000 b.c.e.

In eastern North America, Paleo-Indians only occasionally hunted mastodon, more often focusing on a mixed diet of caribou, white-tailed deer, elk, smaller game, fish, and a broad assortment of plants. As in western North America, the Paleo-Indian period in eastern North America grades almost imperceptibly into the Eastern Archaic, which begins c. 8000-7000 b.c.e.


During the Paleo-Indian period, North America underwent dynamic climatic and physiographic change, dramatic floral and faunal transformations, and the peopling of its entire extent. This latter populational transformation involved many founding groups with diverse technologies and adaptations who used several different coastal and interior routes. The Paleo-Indian lifeway was highly variable, heavily dependent on perishable technology, and dietetically broad-based, with only occasional hunting of now extinct big game. This view of Paleo-Indians represents a radical revision of earlier scholarship, which tended to focus on Clovis as the highly specialized, sole progenitor of all cultures encompassed by the time period.

Further Reading

  • Adovasio, J. M. The First Americans: In Pursuit of Archaeology’s Greatest Mystery. New York: Random House, 2002. An insider’s look at the heated controversies surrounding the initial peopling of the New World. Bibliography and index.
  • Dillehay, Tom D. The Settlement of the Americas: A New Prehistory. New York: Basic Books, 2000. A careful examination of the colonization of the New World from the perspective of South America.
  • Fagan, Brian M. Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent. 3d ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. A broad synthesis of the prehistory of North America from the first colonists to European contact. Bibliography and index.
  • Meltzer, David J. Search for the First Americans. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1993. A balanced study of the history of research into and major issues surrounding the first migrants into the New World.