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Paleo-Indians (Paleoindians) or Paleoamericans is a classification term given to the first peoples who entered, and subsequently inhabit the American continent. Accruing during the final glacial episodes of the late Pleistocene peroid. The prefix "paleo" comes from the Greek adjective palaios (παλαιός) meaning "old." The term Paleo-indians applies specifically to the lithic period in the Western Hemispheremarker and is distinct from the term Paleolithic.

Evidence suggest big-game hunters crossed the Bering Straitmarker from Asia (Eurasia) into North America over a land bridge (Beringia), that existed between 45,000 BCE — 12,000 BCE (47,000 — 14,000 years ago). Small isolated groups of hunter-gatherers then migrated alongside herds of large herbivores far into Alaskamarker. 16,500 BCE — 13,500 BCE (18,500 — 15,500 years ago), ice free corridors developed along the Pacific coast and valleys of North America. This allowed animals, followed by humans to migrate south into the interior on foot and/or by using primitive boats down the coast line. However, the precise dates and routes of the peopling across the New World is an ongoing debate.

Stone tools, particularly projectile points and scrapers, are the primary evidence of the earliest well known human activity in the Americas. Crafted lithic flaked tools are used by archaeologists and anthropologists to classify cultural periods. Scientific evidence links indigenous Americas to Asia peoples, specifically eastern Siberian populations. Modern indigenous Americas are linked to North Asian populations in linguistic dialects, the distribution of blood types, and in genetic composition as reflected by molecular data, such as DNA. 8,000 BCE — 7,000 BCE (10,000 — 9,000 years ago) the climate stabilized, leading to a rise in population and lithic technology advances, resulting in a more sedentary lifestyle.

Migration into the Americas

The specifics of Paleo-Indian migration to and throwout the Americas, including the exact dates and routes traveled, are subject to ongoing research and discussion. The traditional theory has been that these early migrants moved into the Beringia land bridge between eastern Siberia and present-day Alaska around 40,000 — 17,000 years ago, when sea levels were significantly lowered due to the Quaternary glaciation. 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. Another route proposed is that, either on foot or using primitive boats, they migrated down the Pacific Northwest 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 migration out of Beringia (eastern Alaska), ranges from 40,000 to around 16,500 years ago. This time range is a hot source of debate and will be for years to come. The few agreements 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.

Lithic period

See also: Lithic period and Mesoamerica
Sites in Alaska (East Beringia) like Dry Creekmarker and Healy Lakemarker are where the earliest evidence has been found of Paleo-Indians. Followed by archaeological sites in northern British Columbiamarker, western Albertamarker, and the Old Crow Flats region in the Yukonmarker. The Paleo-Indian would eventually flourish all over the Americans, primarily based in the great Plains of the United Statesmarker and Canadamarker, with offshoots as far east as the Gaspé Peninsulamarker on the Atlantic coastmarker, and as far south as Chilemarker, Monte Verdemarker. 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 chipped-stone points making knapping progress identifiable. This lithic reduction tool adaptations have been found across the Americas, utilized by highly mobile bands consisting of approximately 20 to 50 members of an extended family. Hunting and gathering bands usually have no tribal chiefs (Signal leader). The men and women who earned the respect of the group because of their abilities at hunting, healing, or providing some other needed goods or services led the bands. The elders (the average life span was 30-35 years) would have been highly valued for their experience and knowledge. 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 hunted 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 covering up to 360km (225 miles) a year. Many groups of peoples lived in wigwam like structures made of frame poles and covered with bark slabs or animal hides. This type of housing was easy to build or move and could be heated with a small fire near the center of the structure. Diets were often sustaining and rich in protein due to successful hunting. Clothing was made from a variety of small and mid size animal hides. During much of the Paleo-indian period, 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 (13,500 years ago), 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.-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 made from stone obtained from many sources are found traded or moved to new locations. Stone tools were traded and/or left behind from North Dakotamarker and Northwest Territoriesmarker, to Montana and Wyomingmarker. Trade routes also have been found from the British Columbia Interior to the coast of Californiamarker.The glaciers that covered the northern half of the continent began to gradually melt, exposing new land for occupation starting from 17,500 to 14,500 years ago. At the same time as this was occurring, world wide extinctions among the large mammals began. In North America, camels and horses eventually died off, the latter not to reappear on the continent until the Spanish reintroduced the spices near the end of the 15th century CE. As the Quaternary extinction event was happening the late Paleo-indian would have relied more on other means of subsistence pattern.

10,500 BCE — 9,500 BCE (12,500 — 11,500 years ago), the broad-spectrum big game hunters of the great plains begun to focus on a single animal species - the bison (an early cousin of the American Bison). The earliest known of these bison oriented is the Folsom traditions. 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 precessing some meat, then moving on. The Paleo-Indian way of life gradually disappeared, groups like the El Abra took to supplementing there food resources with bearn, fish and seasonally wild vegetables. Paleo-Indian were not numerous and population densities were quite low. Although some groups continued as big game hunters, hunting traditions became more varied and meat procurement methods more sophisticated.

Archaic and Formative period

Archaic stage (8000 BCE — 1,000 BCE), the changing environment featured a warmer more arid climate. This caused the disappearance of the last megafauna and great coniferous forests, forcing a new way of life for the inhabitants. Remnant groups of Paleo-Indians were absorbed by new advanced cultures that had developed in surrounding areas like, the Southwest, Arctic, Valdivia, Dalton and Plano traditions. Groups of peoples like the ancestors of the Fuegians and Patagonians are now working with specialized toolkits, some adapted to a semi-maritime way of life. Archaic period tools and implements are made of stone, bone and undoubtedly wood and plant fibers. However unlike their predecessors, percussion-chipped tools from quartz cobbles are sometimes retouched with elaborate carvings. Peckes, ground stones and wood-working tools were also a significant addition to Archaic stage toolkits. The placement of artifacts and materials within an Archaic burial site indicated a social differentiation based upon status.

Formative stage (Pre-Classic) (2,000 BCE — 500 CE), the "Neo-Indian" cultures like Tiwanakumarker, Olmec, Zapotec, Thule and Mississippian start to develop. This regional adaptations became the norm with reliance less on hunting and gathering, with a more mixed economy of small game and harvested plant foods. In the western plains, groups had moved toward the mountain valleys and shifted from nomadic hunting to more fixed base hunting. The eastern groups had turned to a mixed economy with far more dependence on vegetable foods and small game (deer and rabbits). In the bottleneck of Central America (Mesoamerica), agricultural advancements allowed the higher costs of more permanent residence to accumulate faster than the north. Metals such as copper was beginning to be used in the production of utilitarian tools such as fish gaffs and adzes. Through the Classic period (100 CE — 1,200 CE), decorative objects such as beads and other ornaments reached there apex of complexity alongside Mesoamerican architecture.


Paleo-Indians are generally classified by lithic reduction and/or lithic core styles. Lithic technology fluted spear points, like other spear points are collectively called projectile points. The projectiles are constructed from chipped-stones, that have a long groove called a "flute". Made by chipping a single flake from each side of the point. The point was then tied onto a spear of wood or bone. As the environment changed due to the ice age ending around 16,000 — 14,000 years ago. Many animals migrated over the land to take advantage of the new sources of food. Humans following these animals like bison, mammoth and mastadon, thus gaining the nickname big-game hunters. Although, Pacific coastal groups of the period would have relied on fishing as there primarily source of substance.

Archaeologists are piecing together evidence that the earliest human settlements in North America were thousands of years before the appearance of the current Paleo-Indian time frame (before the late glacial maximum 20,000 plus years ago). Evidence indicating peoples were living as far east as northern Yukon, in the glacier-free zone call Beringia before 30,000 BCE (28,000 years ago). Until recently, it was generally believed that the first Paleo-Indian peoples to arrive in North America belonged to the Clovis culture. This archaeological phase was named after the town of Clovis, New Mexicomarker, where in 1936 unique Clovis point were found in situ at the site of Blackwater Drawmarker, where they were directly associated with the bones of Pleistocene animals.

Recent data from a series of archaeological sites throughout the Americas, suggest that Clovis, thus "Lithic-Paleo-Indian" phase classifications should be reexamined. In particular, sites like Cactus Hill in Virginiamarker, Meadowcroft Rocksheltermarker in Pennsylvaniamarker, Monte Verdemarker in Chilemarker, and Topper in South Carolinamarker, have generated earlier dates for Paleo-Indian occupations. These sites significantly predate the time frame of ice-free corridors, thus suggest that there was additional coastal migration routes available traversed either on foot and/or in boats. Geological evidence suggests the Pacific coastal route was open for overland travel before 23,000 years ago and after 16,000 years ago.


Molecular genetics study suggests that Amerindian populations derived from a theoretical single founding population, possibly from only 50 to 70 genetic contributors. Preliminary research, restricted to only 9 genomic regions (or loci) have shown a genetic link between original Americas and Asia populations. The study does not address the question of separate migrations for these groups, and excludes other DNA data-sets.

The American Journal of Human Genetics released an article in 2007 stating "Here we show, by using 86 complete mitochondrial genomes, that all Indigenous Americans haplogroups, including Haplogroup X , were part of a single founding population." Amerindian groups in the Bering Strait region exhibit perhaps the strongest DNA or mitochondrial DNA relations to Siberian peoples. The genetic diversity of Amerindian indigenous groups increase with distance from the assumed entry point into the Americas. Certain genetic diversity patterns from West to East suggest at least some coastal migration events. Geneticists have variously estimated that peoples of Asia and the Americas were part of the same population from 42,000 to 21,000 years ago.

See also

Further reading

  1. Paleolithic specifically refers to the period between approximately 2.5 million years ago and the end of the Pleistocene in the Eastern Hemisphere, and is not used in New World archaeology.
  2. Surovell, Todd A. "Early Paleoindian Women, Children, Mobility, and Fertility." American Antiquity, 65 (3), 2000.
  3. Bradley, B. and Stanford, D. "The North Atlantic ice-edge corridor: a possible Palaeolithic route to the New World." World Archaeology 34, 2004.
  4. Lauber, Patricia. Who Came First? New Clues to Prehistoric Americans. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2003.

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