It Was A Very Long Time Ago Pt. II

Last month I wrote about the first 1,300 years of Chautauqua County prehistory.  At least two dozen chert projectile points and some other flake tools from this period have been found in Chautauqua County, although none are in the Fenton collection.

The Pleistocene (Ice Age) ended and the Holocene (modern era) began 9 or 10,000 years ago. Climate changed zigzag but trended decidedly warmer. The glacier retreated. Plant and animal populations progressed  toward the composition that persisted to present times. About the dates and details, there is disagreement. There is more disagreement about the local human population. It was very small for several thousand years even by prehistoric standards.  It may have dropped below that of the previous era. There is no agreement but evidence is even more rare than for the Paleo period. Studies have been made on the Niagara Frontier, in northwestern Pennsylvania and farther afield in central New York and Southern Ontario. But from about 10,000 years ago to about 3,000 years ago, whoever was here left little trace to study beyond a few rare bifurcated and other styles of projectile points.

Life got a little better starting around 3,000 years ago. Pottery was introduced. Food and possessions could be stored much more conveniently provided they were not constantly moved. Animal fat that had always dripped into the fire and burned away could now be recovered from boiled stew and eaten for precious calories.  Populations grew. People stayed in one location longer and began to try cultivating certain plants for supplementary food. These were  native weeds, no corn, beans, or squash yet.  At some time, the bow and arrow was introduced. Think how that must have made life better for hunters.  

Sketch map of the Poland center mound site
from Arthur C. Parker’s Archeological History of New York, Vol. II, 1922.

Starting around 500 B.C. in the lower Ohio valley, a new belief or social system apparently developed. It had many variations through time and territory but it always included mound burials. Archaeologists identify two major manifestations: first Adena and later Hopewell (The later Mississippian did not affect this area. The designation “Mound Builders” fails to make these distinctions and is no longer used.). These same people also developed an impressive trade network for materials from far away, items  sought primarily for ritual and artistic purposes: exceptionally pretty stone, mineral mica, copper, sea shells. This was trade by trail and canoe and the trails were probably very bad. There were no wheels or vehicles, and no pack animals. There is disagreement among archaeologists about whether this trade was done by a hand to hand chain or by professional traders who made long treks, or both. There is evidence for some long distance travel. If this is so, there had to be some rules or understanding over much of the continent that strangers would not automatically be killed or enslaved.

The ideas and the trade did extend into Chautauqua County. At least 16 mounds in 13 locations were constructed, all much lower and less impressive than those downstream. Only one still exists. We were at the far reaches of Hopewell influence from around year 1 to 300 or so A.D. One has to wonder how many people it took and how long it took them to build even the small local mounds with elk shoulder hoes rather than shovels and baskets instead of wheelbarrows.  What gods or beliefs or leaders impelled such effort? How were they organized? How were they fed?

We know little about how these people died and less about how they lived. All but one of the local excavations was done by 19th century amateurs or workmen wanting to get the mounds out of the way. Most of them were just plowed over until they vanished. Observations were rarely made, poorly recorded, and worse preserved. The bones crumbled or were discarded. Much, very much, could be learned if we had access to them today but we would still be denied the opportunity. The information would be destroyed and forever lost because of reburial and “repatriation” laws.  Among the questions it might settle would be, was it the people with new ideas who moved in or just the ideas themselves. If it was actual migration, where from and how rapid?  

The whole thing seems to have collapsed rather abruptly. We don’t really know why. But people gave up long distance trade and made do with what they had nearby. They didn’t come together  any more for extravagant rituals and burial work parties for favored individuals and they expended much less effort on art.

Corn – maize – showed up not much later (The date is still very much in question.), maybe first just the grain as a curiosity, a rare trade item.  Maize is native to tropical Mexico. It took thousands of years to develop varieties that could mature in our short northern growing seasons.  But slowly it changed people’s whole way of life. Someone had to stay home to weed, hoe, and chase deer away. Someone had to plant and harvest and prepare storage locations. There were whole new ways of cooking followed by whole new ceremonies and myths and new gods. People clumped together into the first villages to work together and the villages stayed put for a few years or as long as firewood could be found and soil fertility held up and neighbors could tolerate one another. Archaeologists call this the Late Woodland era. I will discuss it next month.

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