Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Paleolithic People In Ohio Not Vegetarians

Who would have guessed that Native American Ohioians weren't vegetarians?


This is the earliest direct evidence of hunting in Ohio, based upon radiocarbon dates for butchered sloth remains that show that they are 13,435 to 13,738 years old. But, of course, all modern humans in that era presumably hunted for food in addition to gathering.

This site is not, however, the earliest evidence of modern humans (or any hominins for that matter, there were no hominins in the Americas before modern humans) in the Americas or even in that general region of North America.

The Real Issue: Clovis or Pre-Clovis?

The linked account doesn't make clear whether this is an early Clovis culture era site, or is pre-Clovis. The date range, while narrow, would be consistent with either possibility, although it is quite old. The conventional date for the start of the Clovis period is 13,500 years ago (11,500 BCE), and it was only about 1,500 years long, so a date in that time frame seems like a remarkable coincidence if it isn't a Clovis era find.

If it is a Clovis site, it is a ho-hum find worthy of little more than a footnote in the American archaeological record. There are Clovis sites all over the place in the North American interior. The archaeological culture is reasonably well understood. The Clovis were the proto-typical big game hunters of North America, so a Clovis sloth kill would be unexceptional. The precision of carbon dates is sufficiently modest that the result may have had been something of a statistical fluke in the random error associated with the methodology on the older rather than the young age by a few centuries. And, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

On the whole, I'm inclined to think that this is just another not very well documented Clovis culture find. The Clovis culture concept wasn't formulated until the 1930s, so someone digging up remains in 1915 wouldn't have known how to distinguish between Clovis era stone tools, the far less remarkable, much more recent Native American stone points from the last few thousand years that are found all over Ohio, or stone tools that might have been pre-Clovis. And, intense suburban development in the area where the remains were found since the 19950s may make it impossible to do any follow up archaeology in Norwich Township.

On the other hand, if it is a pre-Clovis site, it adds an important data point to a very limited set of pre-Clovis sites that would defy a number of conventional expectations about when which humans started to occupy the Midwest when.

The Remains Have Little Context

Part of the problem involved in trying to classify this evidence is that we don't know if there were any culturally matchable stone point in association with the animal remains.

The bones were discovered in 1915, but only radiocarbon dated recently.

The only documentation with the remains indicates they were found in a swamp in Norwich Township. The exact locality where the bones were first discovered is uncertain.

Norwich Township is on the Northwest border of the city of Columbus, Ohio. Much of Ohio was swampland before it the state was cleared of trees and its swamps were drained for agriculture by pioneers and their successors in the 1800s.

Notable Purported Pre-Clovis Sites

The Meadowcroft, Pennsylvania site (near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border), has been dated as 2,500 years older, and hence clearly pre-Clovis.

All of the other well documented purported pre-Clovis Paleoindian sites are in coastal North America, in Alaska, or in South America. So, if this find were pre-Clovis, it would add an important early interior North American data point.

There are two outlier sites in the Americas whose claimed ages are so much older than Meadowcroft and so contrary to all of the other evidence that I have deep doubts about the claims:

Pedra Furada, PiauĂ­, Brazil (55,000 yr BP ABOX)
Topper, (50,000 yr BP) South Carolina, US

The dates are about 34,000 years older than the next more recent sites beyond Beringia. Some scientists have attributed the old carbon dates at the Topper site to ancient forest fires. Analysis of the Pedra Furada dating (which like Meadowcroft involves rock shelters) is beyond the scope of this post.

If Meadowcroft and the new Norwich remains were both pre-Clovis and are correctly dated, this would tend to disfavor the view to date that the pre-Clovis Paleoindians were basically coastal migrants. On the other hand, if the Meadowcroft site really is the only non-coastal pre-Clovis site in all of North America, greater skepticism of the dating of this site may be appropriate.

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