The Stone Age in North America: Explorers & Tools

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

In most parts of the world, we have a pretty good idea about when the Stone Age began. In North America, this is still a source of debate, and in this lesson we'll look at evidence as to why this is the case.

The Start of the American Stone Age

In European history, the concept of a Stone Age indicates an era of social and technological consistency and stability. With the development of metal and the start of the Bronze Age, more social and technological changes occurred, a pattern again repeated at the start of the Iron Age. These descriptors are neat, effective ways to compartmentalize millennia of history.

In North America, this system is less useful because most cultures never stopped relying on stone technology until the arrival of Europeans. However, that doesn't mean their cultures and technologies weren't constantly developing and changing. When we speak of the North American Stone Age, we're generally looking at the Paleolithic era, the period at the end of the last Ice Age, which is an important period because this is when the first evidence of humans in North America appears. So, archaeologist working in this period aren't just asking who these people were; we're asking where they came from. They weren't just ancient innovators; they were ancient explorers as well.

Migration Theories

While there have been a number of theories to explain the peopling of the Americas, only two have gained significant attention. The first is what we'll call the Solutrean hypothesis. The Solutreans were a Paleolithic culture of ancient Europe, based in Spain and France. So, this theory presumes that the first Americans arrived from Europe. How'd they get here? According to the Solutrean hypothesis, they used basic canoes to sail along the edge of the ice sheet that connected Northern Europe and North America in the glacial period, camping on the ice at night and eating fish and seal meat to survive.

A Solutrean stone tool
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This idea is not widely accepted today. It's mainly based on similarities between early American and Solutrean stone tools, but most archaeologists see those similarities as a result of the fact that there are only so many ways to sharpen a rock. The Solutrean hypothesis also carries dubious implications for re-writing the history of European colonialism by arguing that early Americans were ancestrally European anyway.

The more accepted theory is that the first people in the Americas came across a land bridge connecting Russia and Alaska known as Beringia or the Bering land bridge. Basically, when glaciers form across North America, so much seawater is trapped that the sea level declines, exposing this land bridge. The theory is that ancient hunters followed prey across the land bridge, and into North America around 12,000 BCE. Today, this is the most accepted model of migration, and is supported by genetic evidence that shows a clear link between Native Americans and Siberian/Mongolian ethnic groups.

Genetic evidence suggest a clear link between many Native American cultures and north/east Asia
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The Clovis Culture

So, who were these people? We knew very little about them, until evidence appeared in the American Southwest around 10,000 BCE. At that time, there was suddenly a proliferation of stone tools, all made in the same way. We call this the Clovis culture, but we know little about the Clovis people beyond the tools they used. The most definitive Clovis tool was a large projectile point (spearhead), called the Clovis point. The Clovis point is about 11 centimeters long, and characterized by a short flute or incised channel near the base, where the tool was hafted to a spear. The Clovis people used this to hunt mammoth, ancient bison, and other large prey.

The Clovis toolkit also included other lightweight, portable objects useful to a nomadic hunter-gatherer society. Perhaps most important was a core, a high-quality rock which could be chipped to create new microblades and other thin, sharp tools for cutting and scraping. The Clovis people also made needles of bone, beads from bones and shellfish, and hammers from bone and rock. It was a transportable and efficient set of tools that fit their nomadic lifestyle.

A Clovis point
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