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The Americas

Early Cultures


Palaeo-Indian Americas (Palaeolithic)
c.40,000 - 8000 BC

The term Palaeo-Indians or Palaeo-Americans is applied to the first peoples who entered and afterwards inhabited the Americas during the concluding glacial episodes of the late Pleistocene period. The prefix 'palaeo-' originates in the Greek adjective, palaios, meaning 'old' or 'ancient'. The term 'Palaeo-Indians' relates precisely to the 'stone-tools' period in the western hemisphere and is different from the term 'Palaeolithic'.

Until comparatively recently, the first prehistoric Native American communities were regarded as being part of the Clovis culture. An improved picture of events has shown that quite a bit happened before the rise of the Clovis, but the Palaeo-Indian era still provides an umbrella for the Clovis culture, the Western Fluted Point tradition, the Western Stemmed tradition, the Post Pattern culture, the Folsom tradition, the Plano cultures, the Dalton tradition, and the Cody complex (but does not cover potential settlement in the pre-Palaeo-Indian Americas).

Traditional theories suggest that big-animal hunters crossed the Bering Straits from North Asia into North America over a land and ice bridge (referred to as Beringia). Modern human populations were undergoing rapid expansion during this period, also entering Europe after at least twenty thousand years of less vigorous expansion following migration out of Africa into the Near East and Asia.

This land bridge - the Bering land bridge - existed between about 45,000-12,000 BC. Sea levels were significantly lower at the time due to the Quaternary glaciation - huge amounts of water were locked up in the ice.

Minor, isolated groups of hunter-gatherers migrated alongside herds of large herbivores (Pleistocene megafauna, such as mammoths and mastodons), far into Alaska. From around 16,500-13,500 BC, ice-free corridors developed along the Pacific coast and the valleys of North America. This allowed animals, followed by humans, to migrate south into the interior.

FeaturePrecise dates and precise routes which were travelled by the Paleo-Indian migration are subject to ongoing research and a great deal of discussion (some of it heated). Various sources contend that Palaeo-Indians migrated from Asia across the Bering Straits and into Alaska some time between about 40,000-16,500 years ago (with the earliest proposed dates being the most heatedly-discussed - see feature link).

Another proposed route takes the migrants down the Pacific coast to South America, either using primeval boats or on foot. One recent theory has pioneering groups of Pacific natives making the perilous trans-Pacific crossing towards the Aleutian Islands, thereby bypassing the land-bridge route across Beringia (this theory seems to be unaware of the likelihood that the Aleutians themselves made use of this land bridge - see 30,000 BC below).

One of the few points which can be agreed is that Asia - via eastern Siberia - was the place of origin of these people (with the linguistically-isolated Nivkh perhaps being the last direct Asian relatives of the first Americans). Extensive habitation of the Americas took place during the late glacial period, around 14,000-11,000 BC.

Evidence and linguistic factors link many indigenous Americans to eastern Palaeolithic Siberian populations which themselves had largely been - or would soon be - submerged by East Asian groups. The blood types of native American aboriginal peoples have also been linked to Siberia in the aftermath of the fading Afontova Gora culture.

However, alternative theories about the origins of Palaeo-Indians continue to persist, including migration from Europe. Despite the controversy, there is evidence for at least two separate migrations from North Asia. Then, between 8000-7000 BC, the climate stabilised, leading to a rise in population and advances in lithic (stone) technology, resulting in a more sedentary lifestyle.

Buffalo on the North American plains, by Dave Fitzpatrick

(Information by Mick Baker and Peter Kessler, with additional information from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), and from External Links: Science Advances, and Humans in America (Phys.org), and A New History of the First Peoples in the Americas, Adam Rutherford (The Atlantic), and The first Americans could have taken a coastal route into the New World, Bruce Bower (Science News), and Mastodon meal scraps revise US prehistory, Jonathon Webb (BBC), and From Siberia to the Arctic and the Americas, Douglas Wallace (DNA Learning Center), and Tracking the First Americans, Glenn Hodges (National Geographic), and Human footprints (The Guardian), and Some of the first humans in the Americas came from China (The Guardian), and Giant sloth pendants (The Guardian).)

c.40,000 BC

FeatureEvidence exists in New Mexico to support an early arrival of humans in the Americas (although an even earlier dating exists in the pre-Palaeo-Indian Americas). What appear to be human footprints are preserved in volcanic ash in the town of Clovis, although the claim that they are human is controversial (see feature link).

Berengia's land
An archaeologist's view of Alaska's modern coast would not look too much different from the coastal regions of Beringia, the lost 'continent' of land which once linked the Americas to the Asia

c.30,000 BC

The period known as the 'Last Glacial Maximum' begins around this time. The planet is subjected to a cold snap which sucks up ocean waters into glaciers and ice sheets which extend outwards from the poles. Current estimates shown that the sea level falls somewhere between sixty and one hundred and twenty metres lower than it is today.

Previously submerged land is exposed all the way from Alaska to Russia, and all the way southwards to the Aleutians, a crescent chain of volcanic islands which speckle the northern Pacific. The prevailing theory about the first peopling of the Americas concerns them using that Alaska-Russia land 'bridge' (more of a lost continent than a bridge) - Beringia.

c.25,000 BC

For a long time in academia, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, this had been the earliest generally-accepted arrival date for the first migrants to enter North America from Siberia via the Bering land bridge. Perhaps surprisingly, this migration is not limited solely to Siberians. East Asians are included, in a period of migration which lasts from about 24,000 BC to 17,500 BC.

Pendant and giant sloth of the Palaeolithic Americas
The sloth-bone ornaments were discovered about thirty years ago at a rock shelter called Santa Elina, in central Brazil, with the new study being the first to analyse them extensively and rule out the possibility that humans had found and carved them thousands of years after the animals had perished

In 2023 new evidence is published which confirms that humans are not only entering the Americas between about 25,000-23,000 BC, they already have done so and have made it at least as far south as Brazil.

Analysis of triangular and teardrop-shaped pendants prove that they are made from the bones of deceased giant sloths (with this species going extinct around 10,000 BC, largely due to abrupt climatic changes).

The conclusion is drawn that the pendants are the work of deliberate craftsmanship. The work uses fresh bone material rather than later-discovered leftovers, taken within a few days to a few years at most after the death of the animal.

c.22,000 BC

An emerging theory which is being expanded by DNA data involves the first peopling of the Bluefish Caves (Yukon, Canada) around this time. These people apparently represent a culture which remains isolated for thousands of years in the cold north, incubating a population which will eventually seed the rest of the Americas. This idea has become known as the 'Beringian Standstill'.

Mastadon bones
Shown here are unbroken mastodon ribs and vertebrae, including one vertebra with a large, well-preserved neural spine, which have been dated around 130,000 years old and which seem to show signs of handling by non-modern humans

These founders had already divided themselves from their Siberian cousins of the Aurignacian culture around 40,000 BC when they entered Beringia. They reach the Bluefish Caves around 22,000 BC (perhaps with some influence from and interbreeding with the early Mal'ta-Buret' people of Siberia) and remain there until around 14,000 BC.

DNA analysis of the genomes of indigenous people show fifteen founding mitochondrial types not found in Asia. It is new gene variants from this population which subsequently spread across the Americas but do not cross back into Siberia - the land bridge has been submerged.

Nowadays, the levels of genetic diversity in modern Native Americans - derived from just those original fifteen - are lower than they are in the rest of the world. Again, this supports the idea of a single, small population seeding the Americas, with little admixture from new populations for many thousands of years.

c.21,000 BC

Reported in 2021, human footprints are discovered in White Sands national park in New Mexico, with them being dated to the period between 21,000-19,000 BC.

White Sands footprints, New Mexico
Fossilised human footprints found in White Sands national park in New Mexico, USA, provide conclusive proof of the presence of humans in the Americas as long ago as 21,000 BC

The prints have been buried in layers of soil, with scientists from the United States Geological Survey analysing seeds which have been embedded into the tracks to calculate the dating. It is also determined that the dozen footprints belong to a variety of people, mostly children and teenagers.

c.15,000 BC

Another theory for the peopling of the Americas places this event towards the end of the most recent ice age, at a point at which glaciers have just receded from a cluster of southern Alaskan islands. Life-supporting habitats appear soon after the ice has melted, allowing people to spread southwards by stopping off at coastal retreats along the Gulf of Alaska and down through British Columbia.

The contention is that the ice-free corridor which would permit a land-based southwards migration will not be anywhere near as hospitable as early as this, so a coastal migration should be the preferred option.

Prior to this, Douglas C Wallace's seaborne migrations from south-east Asia are given an earliest proposed arrival date of 12,000 BC.

Mal-ta-Buret' boy
DNA from the skeleton of a boy of the Mal'ta-Buret' culture in Siberia offers clues to the first Americans, with this culture being the first to the east of the Ural Mountains to show differences from its European counterparts, albeit before any admixture from East Asians had taken place

c.12,550 BC

Dated to this period, stone tools and bones from a butchered mastodon are found by archaeologists at the bottom of the Aucilla River in Florida. A wealth of further evidence is pulled from the same murky sinkhole which includes many more tools, animal bones, and dung samples with chewed-up vegetable matter which allows for conclusive, accurate carbon dating.

Before the river and sediments are laid down at a later date, this area appears to contain a watering hole at which both animals and humans gather. The mastodon is either hunted or scavenged.

c.10,500 BC

There is evidence of humans living in southern Chile around this time, immediately after the disappearance of the Clovis culture. These people do not use Clovis technology, and are too far away from the town of Clovis in New Mexico to show a direct link between them and the Clovis in such a way which would indicate that the Clovis is the founding culture for South America.

Andes Mountains
The very nature of Chile's topography made it one of the toughest parts of South America for humans to successfully inhabit

Instead, they are either a completely separate group of migrant-descendants or - less likely due to the lack of cultural similarities - are refugees from the possibly climate-change-induced collapse of the Clovis. The fact that Western Stemmed tools have been found this far south suggests a pan-Pacific coastline tradition which may even predate the Clovis.

c.10,000 BC

The Palaeo-Indian period continues across the Americas, but with variations emerging over the next two thousand years, both in North America and South America.

In the north, with the Clovis already having faded, it is the Western Fluted Point tradition which remains strong, alongside the Western Stemmed tradition and the Post Pattern culture.

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