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FIRST PEOPLE OF NORTH AMERICA

When the Ice Age began two million years ago, people and animals were much different than they are now. Paleontologists, scientists who study fossil animals, and Paleoanthropologists, paleontologists who specialize in studying the fossil ancestors of modern humans, tell us that the distribution of many common mammals and the ancestors of modern humans was much different than it is today. The ancestors of modern humans, for example, were much more primitive than they are today and were confined to southern, warmer climates. It was only by about 50,000 years ago that people had evolved cultures capable of supporting them in more northern, colder climates, in northern Europe and Asia, for example.

Many mammals that are familiar today were also different in the past. In the areas south of the glaciers, open, savanna-like conditions prevailed that allowed herds of large herbivores to flourish. The ancestors of modern horses and camels had evolved in North America and practically dominated the northern landscape along with ultra-large ancestors of beaver. In Asia and Europe, the familiar Woolly Mammoth and Mastodon similarly developed to exploit these northern reaches.

During the advance of the glaciers, modern humans crossed the Bering Land Strait, probably while hunting the large game animals which would have found the conditions there ideal. This crossing was probably a leisurely one, made by hundreds or even thousands of people, and could have occurred any time after 50,000 years ago and probably before 25,000 years ago. Indeed, the "crossing" could have been so gradual that people need not have travelled more than one or two kilometres in their lifetimes. The extent of the Beringia Refugium, or the unglaciated continent of Beringia, would have included most of Alaska and the northern Yukon, before the way was blocked by glaciers coming down from the Rocky Mountains. It is the manner that these first immigrants to North America made their way from the Beringia Refugium into the interior of North America south of the glaciers that remains a mystery.

Two routes have been proposed for the passage of people into continental North America. One suggestion has been that, as the glaciers first began to recede, a corridor opened between the glaciers originating in the Rocky Mountains and the glaciers originating from Hudson's Bay. This corridor would have run from just north of modern-day Edmonton to south of modern-day Calgary and the first peoples may have travelled this route into the New World.

Opponents to this hypothesis suggest the climate along this corridor may have been too severe to accommodate people for the period it would have taken them to travel it. As an alternative, it has been suggested that the first peoples might have travelled down the coast of British Columbia, along shore lines now inundated by higher sea levels. Opponents to this hypothesis argue that there is no evidence among the earliest groups of technology capable of producing water craft and, perhaps most importantly, it leaves open the question of how these people would then cross the Rocky Mountains, which would then have been glaciated as well.

Clearly much additional research is required before these questions can be answered. Archaeologists in Alberta, for example, have been exploring the proposed inland corridor for early archaeological sites but it may be many years before answers are found under erosional debris from the mountains.

We do know, however, that the First Nations people had arrived in interior North America before 20,000 years ago and had rapidly spread as far as South America in a short period of time. The evidence available indicates the Paleo-Indians were primarily hunters of big game. Archaeological sites in the southwest of the United States have produced clear evidence of Paleo-Indians hunting and scavenging mastodons and extinct species of bison. This evidence usually consists of diagnostic artifacts, such as distinctively shaped projectile points (stone tips of arrows, spears, javelins, etc.), in association with the bones of these animals. Kill sites appear to have been natural traps such as canyons or low cliffs which small groups of animals were stampeded over. Other animals may have been scavenged after natural deaths such as winter starvation.

In addition to these large game animals, Paleo-Indians probably also relied on smaller game and plant foods.

Changes in styles of projectile points are used as one method of determining the relative ages of sites. Early Paleo-Indian sites are easily recognized by the presence of distinctive forms of projectile points called "fluted points", characterized by a channel flake, or "flute", which runs up the centre of the tool, probably to aid in hafting as well as thinning. Two styles of Paleo-Indian projectile points are "Clovis" and "Folsom". Variant forms of the former type are found in Ontario.

Later forms of Paleo-Indian projectile points are not fluted but have a similar shape and are characterized by parallel ribbon flaking which refers to the final shaping of the biface by extremely careful removal of flakes from the sides of the tool.

As mentioned above, during the late Paleo-Indian period, the glaciers which covered the northern half of the continent began to gradually melt, exposing new land for occupation. At the same time as this was occurring, world wide extinctions among the large mammals also occurred. Mastodons, Woolly Mammoths, giant beavers, giant bison and many other important species disappeared. In North America, camels and horses also died off, the latter not to reappear on the continent until the Spanish brought them at the end of the 15th century A.D.



This summary of Ontario Archaeology was taken from the Discovering Ontario Archaeology - Speakers Kit. The original texts were written by Jeff Bursey, Hugh Daechsel, Andrew Hinshelwood and Carl Murphy.



INTRODUCTION¦ POST ICE-AGE GEOGRAPHY AND ENVIRONMENT¦ FIRST PEOPLE OF NORTH AMERICA¦ FIRST PEOPLE OF ONTARIO: THE PALEO-INDIANS¦ THE ARCHAIC PERIOD¦ EARLY WOODLAND PERIOD¦ MIDDLE WOODLAND PERIOD¦ LATE WOODLAND PERIOD¦ THE CONTACT PERIOD¦ THE FRENCH PERIOD (A.D.1650 TO 1763) ¦ THE ENGLISH PERIOD (A.D. 1760 TO 1867)
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