Early Paleoindian Period

by Julie Morrow
© Copyright 1996 The University of Iowa. All rights reserved. 

The Early Paleoindian Period lasted about 1,000 years from 11,500 to about 10,500 years ago. This period is marked by the first human entry into the New World presumably from Asia via the Bering land bridge,and the end of the last Ice Age. The environmental changes that occurred at the end of the last Ice Age brought about major shifts in the distribution and associations of animals and plants. The climate began warming, sea level rose, and vegetation changed. These environmental shifts are believed to have been the major cause of the mammalian extinctions at the end of the last Ice Age. 

During the Early Paleoindian period in Iowa, there were two cultural traditions or complexes defined by their diagnostic flaked-stone projectile point/knives with distinctive manufacturing sequences. The older tradition is called the Clovis cultural complex. It lasted from about 11,500 to about 10, 800 B. P. Following, and perhaps overlapping, the Clovis complex was the Folsom complex which presumably developed from Clovis, which lasted from about 10,900 to roughly 10, 400 years ago. These dates derive from Clovis and Folsom sites in the western United States from which material such as wood charcoal, and bone has been been dated using the radiocarbon dating method. So far, no Folsom or Clovis sites in Iowa have yet been dated using this method. Based on occurrences of diagnostic artifacts, the Clovis complex was widely distributed across North America, while the Folsom complex appears to have been distributed primarily across the Plains. 

The removal of a distinctive flake from the base of well-made lanceolate shaped projectile point preforms, known as "fluting" is one important hallmark of Early Paleoindian stone tool technology. Both Clovis and Folsom projectile points are fluted, but they differ in size, shape, flaking pattern, and the manner in which they were fluted. Some fluted points were probably also used as cutting tools, but their principal function was as projectiles. 

Occurrences of fluted points made of exotic raw materials far from their source area suggest that Early Paleoindians groups were highly mobile and had large territories or range sizes. Their mobility characterized by frequent and long distance movements. A number of different types of Clovis and Folsom sites have been identified, including brief camps or habitation sites, quarry workhops, storage caches, burials, kills, camp/kill, and possibly, aggregation sites. In Iowa, Early Paleoindian sites tend to be found near streams or rivers, and are particularly abundant in confluence areas and in areas of high quality chert or flint. To date, over 200 Clovis and Folsom points have been recorded as part of a regional fluted point survey (Morrow and Morrow 1994). A map of these finds indicates fluted point concentrations in eastern and southwestern Iowa. 

The only Early Paleoindian site in Iowa that has been excavated is the Rummels-Maske site (Anderson and Tiffany 1971). Excavated by the Office of the State Archaeologist in 1966, the site on an upland ridge near a tributary of the Cedar River in eastern Iowa. The 20 complete and fragmentary finished Clovis points recovered from the site appear to represent a cache. 

Early Paleoindians have been referred to as "big game hunters" because of the widespread co- occurrence of fluted points and extinct animals on the Plains. But evidence from a number of Clovis kill and camp sites such as Kimmswick in eastern Missouri, Aubrey in Texas, Hiscock in New York, and Shawnee-Minnisink in Pennsylvania, shows that the diet of Clovis peoples also may have included deer, fish, berries, and small mammals as well. Despite this evidence for a more generalized diet, many archaeologists maintain that the Early Paleoindian subsistence economy emphasized large game such as mammoth, mastodon, caribou, and extinct forms of bison. An extinct form of bison seems to have been the main dish in Folsom times. 

Many Clovis stone tools were made from large bifaces and prepared blade cores. Bifaces appear to have been multifunctional, serving as cores for the production of flakes which could be made into tools as possible cutting and/or chopping implements, and as preforms which could be manufactured into bifacial projectiles or cutting tools. Large conical, polyhedral, or prismatic blade cores also served as sources for flake blanks for large unifacial tools. Blades were sometimes struck from both ends of the core, from flat and ground striking platforms. Clovis blades were fashioned into end scrapers, side scrapers, graver/perforators and numerous other tools including some with multiple functions. Perishable tools and other objects made of bone, antler, and ivory (some of which are engraved or incised) are also known from Early Paleoindian sites. Technological similarities between Early Paleoindian and Upper Paleolithic bone and stone artifacts attest to the Old World roots of the Clovis culture. 

Suggested Reading

Anderson, A.D., and J.A. Tiffany
1972 Rummels-Maske: A Clovis Find-Spot in Iowa. Plains Anthropologist 17:55-59.

Bonnichsen, R., and K. Turnmire (editors)
1992 Clovis Origins. Clovis: Origins and Adaptations, edited by R. Bonnichsen and K.Turnmire, pp. 309-329. Center for the Study of the First Americans, Oregon State University, Corvallis.

Morrow, Toby A., and Juliet E. Morrow
1994 A Preliminary Survey of Fluted Points in Iowa. Current Research in the Pleistocene. 11:47-48.

Stanford, D. J. and J. S. Day (editors)
1992 Ice Age Hunters of the Rockies. Denver Museum of Natural History and University Press of Colorado, Niwot.