Paleo Indians: Culture, Artifacts & Tools

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Americas have been inhabited for a very long time, but who got here first? In this lesson, we'll explore Paleoindian societies and cultures, and see how they thrived in a land that was all their own.


The prefex 'paleo-' means that something is old. Not as in day-old milk, more like thousands to millions of years old. Ancient. Paleontology is the study of ancient creatures, like dinosaurs. Paleobotany is the study of ancient plants. So, any guess who the Paleoindians were? While they never walked with dinosaurs, Paleoindians were ancient peoples, the first to live on the American continents in fact. Ancestors to modern-day Amerindian peoples, these mysterious cultures were the first to inhabit the Western Hemisphere and left legacies that would shape the continents.

Where They Came From

So, let's start with the obvious questions: who were the Paleoindians, and where did they come from? The honest answer is we're not entirely sure. But we have some good ideas. Judging by the oldest archeological sites that we've found, most archeologists believe that the Paleoindian peoples first entered North America between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago, and spread south from there. They likely came from Asia (supported by genetic tests on modern Amerindians) and traveled across the Beringia, which connected Russia and Alaska through a land bridge that was exposed by low sea levels in the Ice Age.

Most archeologists assume that Paleoindians entered the Americas across the land bridge between Russian and Alaska.

This is the most widely-accepted theory, although there are problems with it. Some researchers claim that they have discovered sites that are up to 20,000 years older than this. While this is intriguing, the authenticity of these sites is yet to be proven. Still, many archeologists are beginning to question if it was possible for ancient people to have entered the Americas earlier than we thought.

Paleoindian Cultures

Now, who were these people? Paleoindian cultures were nomadic, meaning they traveled from place to place rather than staying settled. From the variety of animal bones we find in ancient campsites, it seems that they were mostly hunter-gatherer societies of no more than 20-50 people each who followed food sources. Some of these food sources could be pretty impressive; Paleoindian people 12,000 years ago hunted and ate things like mammoths.

Mammoths were amongst the food supply of Paleoindians

Since these very ancient cultures were nomadic and, therefore, without many material possessions, there's a lot about them that we'll never know. But, we can get an idea from the campsites, hearths, and other occupation sites they left behind. The oldest verified culture in the Americas is called the Clovis culture, named after a site near Clovis, New Mexico where stone tools found in mammoth bones confirmed the ancient dates of their existence. Again, however, new evidence has many questioning if there could be a pre-Clovis culture. Since Clovis sites are found in the United States,and Paleoindians are assumed to have entered the Americas in Alaska, most archeologists assume there were pre-Clovis cultures, but that most of their sites were lost to time or eroded by the glaciers of the Ice Age.

Stone Tools

What really defines Paleoindian cultures for us, however, are their tools. Paleoindians were prolific toolmakers, making tools from bone, wood, and other materials. Those which have been preserved, of course, are the stone tools. Paleoindian stone tools were generally made from workable stones, like chert, quartzite or obsidian, and Paleoindians seem to have been very picky about only using the best materials. In fact, some Paleoindian archeological sites contain stone tools made from rocks found thousands of miles away, suggesting some impressive ancient trade networks that exchanged prized materials across the Americas.

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