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The Americas

Early Cultures


Western Stemmed 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 Stemmed tradition is a prehistoric Native American culture which first appears 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 Fluted Point 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.

Now it is thought to be a part of a west coast practice which at first was hemmed in from eastwards expansion by the long range of inland mountains which include the Rocky Mountains. Artefacts of this type, which use smaller pieces of stone than Clovis samples, can be found all along the Pacific coastline in Chile and as far south as Argentina.

Today the Western Stemmed tradition is seen as predating Clovis now that its dates in the west have been shown to be as old, if not older, than Clovis dates. Its technology is also very different from that of Clovis, and may well predate it. The Post Pattern culture which started around the same time, but in north-western California, lasted a further two thousand years.

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 Stemmed 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.12,500 BC

Some of the oldest Western Stemmed points in the region are found in Oregon's Paisley Caves. They are as old as any Clovis influence in Oregon (and both suggest that start dates for these cultures need to be pushed back by a good millennium).

The finds show that these two distinct technologies are parallel developments, not the product of a unilinear technological evolution. 'Blind testing' analysis of coprolites confirms the presence of human DNA in specimens which are of pre-Clovis age.

Paisley Caves, Oregon, USA
The Paisley Caves complex in Oregon displays a good deal of evidence of human occupation from around 12,500 BC and onwards, providing confirmation that the Western Stemmed tradition is at least as old here as any Clovis finds

c.10,900 BC

While Clovis populations undergo a collapse at the time of a proposed ice age blast known as the Younger Dryas, other traditions survive in the form of the Western Stemmed, Western Fluted Point, and Post Pattern.

Temperatures in parts of the northern hemisphere plunge to as much as eight degrees Celsius colder than they are today. 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 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).

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)

c.10,000 BC

Around this time, something scorches a vast swathe of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile with heat so intense that it turns the sandy soil into widespread slabs of silicate glass. The Western Stemmed tradition reaches down this entire coast and even into Argentina.

Research reveals (in 2021) that samples of the desert glass contain tiny fragments which have minerals which are often found in rocks with an extraterrestrial origin. Those minerals closely match the composition of material which had been returned to Earth by Nasa's 'Stardust' mission to the comet 'Wild 2'.

It seems that an extraterrestrial object, most likely a comet, now suffers an airburst explosion above Chile's coastline. The explosion is massive, having a dramatic effect on a large area and perhaps severely affecting the region's already-declining population of large mammals (and quite possibly several groups of humans in the area).

Comet debris in Chile's Atacama Desert
Deposits of dark silicate glass are strewn across a corridor measuring seventy-five kilometres, in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, with research showing that those glasses were likely formed by the heat of an ancient comet exploding above the surface

A contrary argument is that the glass results from ancient grass fires, as the region is not the desert it is today. The comet theory easily discredits such claims with details of its findings. Only an airborne explosion of some violence could have produced all of the witnessed results.

9000 BC

The people of the Western Stemmed and Western Fluted Point 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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