It Was A Very Long Time Ago

Like most local history museums, Fenton has a number of stone projectile points, generally called “arrowheads,” recovered from various locations in the area. In Chautauqua County these were made, used, and lost before anyone began recording written history locally, long before.

Nearly every local historian who writes a book feels obligated to say something about the Indians on the first page. So he or she goes to some book published in the 19th or early 20th century, adds a dash of contemporary political correctness and feels well satisfied. Frankly, it would be unreasonable to expect much better. But the old works are terribly inadequate by the standards of modern knowledge. Even if the current local historian had access to up to date information, he would find that present archeologists agree on almost nothing and disagree on more questions than the old historians ever dreamed of. Even if the true story could be known, it would be long and complicated, vastly different from the convenient, simple, and satisfying stories we like to read.

Prehistory is everything that happened to human beings before the written record began. Our earliest year date for any event in the county is 1739 and our first exact date is July 16, 1749. Both relate to French expeditions. Chautauqua County Indian prehistory effectively ended in 1656 with the defeat of the Eries. With the possible exception of a village at Cattaraugus Creek in the late 18th century, Indians, the Cornplanter band of Senecas, did not re-occupy Chautauqua County until May, 1782.

The human mind has great difficulty mustering interest for anything much beyond “me and now.” Total human history, Old World history, reaching back to the invention of writing in Sumeria, is on the order of 5,500 years, roughly 220 generations, give or take 40 or 50. People have tread the soil of Chautauqua County for more than twice that long.

Until the 1920s, American prehistory was thought to extend only a few thousand years into the past. By the mid 20th century we knew that people, in small numbers, began to appear on the continent soon after the Ice Age glacier melted away starting 12 or 14 thousand years ago. In the last 20 years, the majority of scholars have come to believe there were inhabitants in America thousands of years earlier, people few in number with a few unprepossessing tools. Last year (2021) tracks were discovered in New Mexico 23,000 years old and extreme advocates believe in human presence 100,000 or more years ago. This is not relevant to Chautauqua County, covered as it was by Pleistocene ice until about 14,000 years ago.

After the immensity of the time involved, the second most misunderstood feature in our prehistory is how small the populations were. There is a popular idea, upheld by some legitimate scholars, of a large population across the North American continent decimated at rates of 90% or 95% by European diseases some time between Columbus and the Mayflower (which was almost 130 years). Epidemics of European diseases did cause devastation in some places but archeologists find no evidence of such a large number of lives or deaths on a continent wide basis and certainly not in Chautauqua County. There seem to have been long stretches of time, repeatedly throughout prehistory when nobody or next to nobody at all lived here and at no time in prehistory did the entire Indian population of what is now New York State equal the population of the present greater Jamestown area. In their times of greatest power and historical influence, the combined population of all the Iroquois tribes was about equivalent to the present population of the City of Dunkirk. None of their individual villages ever reached the population of Falconer. No village in Chautauqua County probably ever reached 300. But for most of prehistory there were no villages – anywhere.  I suspect there were many entire centuries in which there were never 100 people in Chautauqua County at any one time and the resident population probably never exceeded 500.

Line drawing of both sides of the first Paleo point found in Chautauqua County.

Another surprise for most people who think about local Indians is that few of the “arrow heads” in collections are really arrow heads. They are spear or dart points made before the introduction of the bow and arrow. When was that? The conventional answer has been about 1000 years ago when the little triangular points became universal and replaced the iconic “arrowhead” styles. But no one really knows and scholars do not agree. In any event “arrowheads,” more correctly called projectile points, have been picked up by the thousands in Chautauqua County. How could so few people drop so many points?  They had a very long time in which to do it, perhaps about 9,000 years. So if just one point a year in the whole county was lost or thrust into the body of an animal that got away and carried the point to a remote spot where the animal died, there would be 9,000 points in the soil of Chautauqua County by 1000 A.D. waiting to be found once plowing began around 1800. That’s not counting another 600 years for the triangles (both scattered and at village sites) and at least 1,300  for the beautiful and distinctive fluted points that preceded the notched points. That would amount to a little less than one point for every 100 acres. If hunters lost just one point on each acre, not per year but over the entire 9,000 years, it would be 9,600 points over the whole county, not much different from the other figure. If any collector would like to make an estimate of the actual average number of points per acre, we could get an idea of the usage rate averaged over that immense length of time. There are many acres where nothing has been found and other locations where caches of a dozen or more have been discovered.

I often think of the lives of the Indians here on my familiar home ground, but so mind bogglingly remote in the distant past.  Life would be a fabric of tragedy, worry, fear, brutality, and disappointment. I think of the women, pregnant most of the time, caring for babies and little children with runny noses and runny rears, no sanitation, no textiles, no paper. Smoke, dust, grit, and dog hair filled the air and food. There was no escape from the cold except summer, no privacy except the forest, no medical care except herbs and rituals that didn’t work. With butchering and raw meat, they would be working in blood and raw flesh all the time. And always there was the horror of a possible brutal and deadly surprise attack at any time that could mean terrible torture and death for them and their children.

That was life in 1500 A.D.. In 8,000 or 10,000 B. C. it was far worse. That was the Paleolithic, the Pleistocene.  All that distinguished humans from animals was language and the skill to chip stones and use them as tools. It had taken  three million years for us to go from scavengers in Africa to hunters all over the earth. Local people like everyone on earth had stone tipped spears, bone needles to sew hides, fire, basketry and cordage, language, and dogs. Nothing else: no permanent shelter, no textiles, no metal, no pottery, no corn or crops of any sort. They had very few if any axes so no ability to cut down trees or work with wood of any serious dimensions. They lived in bands of 35 to 50 people which would mean six to ten young men capable of the most strenuous work and dangerous hunting. Everyone had to have skills and if you lost an adult with necessary skills, your band was doomed. If you became old or ill or injured – man, woman, or child, you could not keep up with the moves, an average of about 10 miles every few days, you were left behind.   I cannot imagine how they survived even a single blizzard, let alone a winter. When they moved, they  had to carry everything they had: whatever they used for temporary shelter, whatever food stores they had, their heavy stone tools and their toolstone, their babies and their toddlers. Winters were colder and summers were hotter. There were huge hairy elephants that could  trample you. There were fierce big bears and cats that could prey on you and certainly on your children.

The children and maybe women, if they didn’t have their hands full with other tasks, probably trapped and snared small game and fished as well as gathered nuts and berries. There was no bow and arrow. Hunting had to be done up close and personal by throwing or thrusting a spear or possibly using nets. That meant use of ambush, patience, organization, and dogs.

They had the most impressive flint knapping skills of anyone on earth, ever. Why they made such extravagantly beautiful and difficult to produce spear points we do not know. Some must have been for ritual or social purposes, trade, or prestige. They had strong preferences for certain toolstone and were willing to go many miles or in some cases hundreds of miles to get it.

I wish I could know, if we placed every one of the 367 million people living today in the United States and Canada into a real Pleistocene Park, how many would come out alive at the end of a year. As soon as our original-equipment  straw sandals or fur boots wore out, we couldn’t even walk. A few young men in California and Florida might survive, maybe some trappers, survivalists, and former Alaskans. None of the philosophers, feminists, and food fadists who dream of an egalitarian Eden back there would make it, and no vegetarians.

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