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The Americas

Early Cultures


Western Fluted Point Tradition (Palaeo-Indian Era)
c.11,200 - 9000 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'.

The Western Fluted Point tradition is a prehistoric Native American culture which first appears in California in North America, roughly between 11,200-9000 BC (and possibly earlier when considering more recent finds). It occurred as part of the over-arching Palaeo-Indian era in the Americas, which is still being fine-tuned as more finds come to light.

This tradition appeared around three hundred years later than the contemporary Clovis culture but essentially parallel to it, alongside the Western Stemmed tradition, and outlasting the Clovis by around two thousand years. The fact that it survived a sudden-but-brief ice age called the Younger Dryas - while the Clovis did not - also contributed to its relative longevity.

Fluted projectile points have long been recognised as being the archaeological signature of early humans who were dispersing throughout the western hemisphere. However, a clear understanding is still lacking regarding their appearance in the interior 'Ice-Free Corridor' of western Canada and eastern Beringia during the early phases of human migration into Palaeo-Indian North America.

Unique to the Americas, a flute which has been removed from the base of a stone projectile point in preparation for attachment to a haft can serve as a proxy for investigating the transmission of technology and material culture amongst the first Americans. The earliest well-dated fluted projectile-point forms have typically been Clovis in origin.

For a time in archaeology virtually all projectile points were labelled as Clovis or Folsom (after the spear point discovery of 1927 in the New Mexico town of Clovis). Only since the beginning of the twenty-first century has there been any discussion of the possibility of a non-Clovis fluted form in the California region of the USA, however careful that discussion may have been in its use of terminology.

In the twenty-first century a picture is now emerging of a non-Clovis proliferation along the west coast of North America, one which filtered downwards from the Beringia ice bridge over the course of several centuries to provide the Western Fluted Point tradition.

Buffalo on the North American plains, by Dave Fitzpatrick

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, and from External Links: Origins and spread of fluted-point technology in the Canadian Ice-Free Corridor and eastern Beringia (PNAS), and How the Folsom Point Became an Archaeological Icon (Discover), and What's Not Clovis? An Examination of Fluted Points in the Far West (Taylor & Francis Online), and Spear tips point to path of first Americans (AAAS), and Clovis Age Western Stemmed Projectile Points and Human Coprolites at the Paisley Caves (AAAS), and Chile's ancient exploding comet (Phys.org).)

c.10,900 BC

While Clovis populations undergo a collapse at the time of a proposed ice age blast known as the Younger Dryas, the Western Fluted Point tradition survives. Temperatures in parts of the northern hemisphere plunge to as much as eight degrees Celsius colder than they are today.

North American large mammals
The Younger Dryas cold spell hit North America hard, just when things were starting to warm up at the end of the ice age - not only did many of the large mammals die out but so did the Clovis culture (click or tap on image to view full sized)

This cold snap lasts 'only' about twelve hundred years before, just as abruptly, Earth begins to warm again. But many of the giant mammals are dying out and the Clovis people have apparently vanished. The Western Stemmed and Post Pattern have both also survived the cold snap.

The cause of this sudden cold spell is a mystery. Most researchers suspect that a large pulse of freshwater from a melting ice sheet and glacial lakes flood into the ocean, briefly interfering with Earth's heat-transporting ocean currents.

FeatureA more radical and controversial theory states that a comet - or perhaps its remnants - hits or explodes over the Laurentide ice sheet which covers much of North America (see feature link).

Clovis fluted points
Clovis fluted spear points are relatively common finds even though their number is not especially high, but Western Fluted Point styles would be fairly similar

The explosion would result in great wildfires across the continent, producing enough soot and other compounds to block out the sun and cool the planet (similar to the much smaller effect experienced after the 1908 Tunguska comet strike which then affects Tungusic tribes in that region).

9000 BC

The people of the Western Fluted Point and Western Stemmed traditions have managed to continue for around eight hundred years after the end of the Younger Dryas cold snap in the Americas. With their near simultaneous fading at this point, the Folsom tradition succeeds them while the Post Pattern continues to thrive.

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