Prehistoric Migration of American Indians

This section on North America owes a great deal to Mr. Eddins

Artifacts and skeletal remains of Cro-Magnon (modern man) did not appear in Africa until about 50,000 B.C.. By 40,000 B.C. there was abundant evidence of modern man in southwestern Europe as well as across Eurasia. Within a couple of thousand years, the Cro-Magnons had obliterated the Neanderthals that had been in Eurasia for 80,000 plus years.

At the end of the last Ice Age (late Pleistocene period), lowering sea levels created a land mass between Siberia and Alaska. The 580,000 square mile land mass was called Beringia…an area about twice the size of Texas. A land bridge fifty-five mile long connected Siberia and North America for approximately 3500 years. Radiocarbon dating by Dr. Scott Elias, at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, has shown that lowering sea levels created this land bridge about 14,000 B.C. and by 10,500 B.C., rising sea water had submerged the Beringia land bridge beneath the Bering Strait. Based on plant life from sea-core samples, Dr. Ellis believes the area was covered with tundra plants and shrubs rather than an arid grassland. His findings would indicate Beringia was unsuitable for extended habitation by large grazing animals.


Beringia –

Small isolated bands of Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers followed herds of large herbivores into Alaska. About 13,500 B.C., an ice free corridor developed that allowed animals and hunter-gatherers to migrate south down the Yukon Valley to the grasslands below Edmonton, Canada. According to Jared Diamond, nothing moved from Alaska across the glacial ice sheets to the Great Plains south of Edmonton, Canada until the Yukon Valley was free of ice.


Bering Strait Land Bridge and the Migration of Early Indians – Jose Arredondo

Scientific evidence links Native American populations to Asia and eastern Siberia populations. American Indians resemble some Asian populations in outward appearance, in the distribution of blood group types, and in genetic composition as reflected by molecular data, such as DNA (Cordell, Paleoamericans).

Stone and Dillehay believe the indigenous peoples that eventually populated the Americas occurred in three separate migrations. The largest of these groups is referred to as the Amerind (Paleo-Indians). The Amerind, which includes most Native Americans south of the Canadian border, commenced around 11,500 B.C.. A second migration called the Na-Dene occurred between 10,000 B.C. and  8, 000 B.C.. Even though at this point the Bering Sea separated Siberia and Alaska, it was only three miles wide in some places. The Athapascan speaking populations of Canada and the United States belong to this group of migrants. The Apache and Navajo in the southwestern United States are from the Athapascan migrants. The third migration around 3,000 B.C. included the Aleuts and Eskimos of Alaska, Canada, and the Aleutian Islands (Taylor).

Archaeologists have established that humans were living in rock shelters at the southern tip of South America by 12,000 B.C.. In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond notes that if Native Americans moved southward from the Great Plains area at a rate of eight-miles per year that they would have reached Patagonia within a thousand years. Based on this, the earliest arrival there by migrating Paleo-Indians would be 10,500 B.C.. If the 12,000 B.C. dating is correct, the only way these people could have gotten there was by some type of watercraft.

Archeologist Jim Dixon believes that costal migration from Siberia to the tip of South America began as early as 14,000 B.C.. Monte Verde, a well-studied site in central Chile, is dated at 12,500 B.C. (Dillehay, Paleoamericans)

There is evidence of interaction between the peoples of Americas and Europe long before Christopher Columbus discovered America, as well as, indications of direct contacts between Polynesian cultures and those in the Americas. Most scholars accept the influence of  Polynesian and even Asian cultures on pre-Columbian American cultures, but many are skeptical of African or European influence…this is hard to understand.

The Olmec of Mexico and Central America created hundreds of massive stone heads. An Olmec political-religious center flourished between 1200 B.C. and 900 B.C. Around this center were six colossal basalt heads each measuring eight- to nine-feet in height and weighing twenty to forty tons. The heads were carved from stone obtained 50 miles or more from the center. There seems little doubt the features of the statues are of African origin.


The evidence for European influence includes Roman coins found in Venezuela. A painting of a pineapple on a wall in Pompeii; pineapples were indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. A clay head in a twelfth-century tomb in Mexico was made in third-century Rome.

As with all “scientific discoveries” like these, they are subject to interpretation, as is the arrival of early humans…the date varies from 50,000 B.C. to 11,500 B.C..

The Paleo-Indian period is defined by three tribes: Clovis, Folsom, and Plainview (Plano):

The ice free corridor in the Yukon Valley allowed animals and the Paleo-Indian hunter-gathers to migrate onto the grasslands south of Edmonton, Canada. This grassland (Great Plains or Prairie) stretched from Edmonton, Canada to the tree line in central Texas. On the west, it was bounded by the Rocky Mountains and on the east by the tree line along the Mississippi River. The Great Plains covers an area close to 500 million acres.

Afraid to venture out on the prairie with its violent storms and lack of shelter, the Paleo-Indians stayed close to the east side of the Continental Divide as far south as Texas. With plenty of  game in this vast area, the majority of the Paleo-Indians remained there for centuries. This does not mean that all Paleo-Indians came this far south, but from the number of Paleo-Indian sites in the area, the majority of them did.  As several species of large herbivores become extinct, the Indians broadened their hunting areas along the edges of the prairie in search of game.


Paleo-Indian Points

Clovis Indians 11,500 B.C. – 10,900 B.C.

In 1929, a spear point was found imbedded with the skeletal remains of mammoths near Clovis, New Mexico. The Paleo-Indians that occupied this site were classified as Clovis Indians. This classification was based primarily on the lithic points found there.


Clovis Point

Clovis points are typically relatively large with single or multiple flutes. The grooved or fluted area rarely extend more than a third of the way up the body.  Many Archeologists believe the Clovis Indians are the first known group of people to populate the Americas. Dating back to 11,500 B.C., isolated Clovis sites have been located in North America from Alaska to Panama.

As more Paleo-Indian sites were located, archeologists set up a stringent criteria to qualify as a Clovis site. Any site that did not meet all of the Clovis criteria was not considered as being early than Clovis. Despite this “stringent criteria” there is growing evidence of small groups of people in the Americas long before the Clovis Indians.

The next three paragraphs are paraphrased from the Pennsylvania Archeological website. Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Washington County, Pennsylvania dates to at least 16,250 B.C. and contains artifacts similar to those found in Siberia from the same time period. The fluted Clovis point has not been found at Meadowcroft or in Siberia. Other sites with early dates are: Cactus Hill in Virginia 16,200 B.C., Topper in South Carolina 16,000 B.C., and Monte Verde in Chile 12,500 B.C.. These sites represent evidence of an early migration. Because there are so many sites dating to the period from 11,500 B.C. to  10,900 B.C., it is hard to imagine that the Clovis Indians would have appeared so quickly without a Pre-Clovis population in place.



Pennsylvania Paleo-Indian Tools                                              Flaked Obsidian (2007)


The Paleo-Indian tool picture is taken from the Pennsylvania Archeology web page, which is an excellent site. These pictures demonstrate a real problems with dating sites and is one of the reasons that some Archeologist reject pre-Clovis sites that are based on the type of  “tools” found. Finding pieces of flint that can be used as knives or scrapers does not mean that they were chipped by Indians. The natural flaking of obsidian results in sharp pieces, even with “thumb or finger grooves” that could be used to cut or scrape hides. The flaked obsidian pictured above was picked up off of the ground near Kilgore, Idaho last summer.

The age of “tools” found in archeological sites is based on the level of the dig and other material at that level i.e. charcoal, but maybe the charcoal was washed or blown into the wind-water-formed shelter from a forest fire 16,000 years ago. There are hundreds of Clovis sites in North America, but only a few sites that supposedly pre-date the Clovis Period.


Alternate Pre-Historic Indian Routes – Anthropik Network

Living in small hunter-gatherer bands, the Clovis Indians followed primarily herds of mammoth and mastodon for about five hundred years, and then according to some archeologists, abruptly disappeared. The Clovis disappearance coincided with the mass extinction  of the Ice Age animals, such as the mastodon and wooly-haired mammoth. It has been postulated by these archeologists that over hunting by Clovis Indians contributed to this mass extinction of Ice Age animals.

This brings up a couple of points to consider:

The Pennsylvania Archeological site states:

There are hundreds of well-dated sites in both North and South America that date to between 11,500 and 10,500 years ago.  Most of these sites contain spear points with a flute, or channel along its length; in the eastern United States, these points are most often called Clovis points.

Clovis Indians hunted in small bands, and even in historic times, small bands of hunter-gatherers consisted of fifteen to twenty members that hunted on the fringe of the Great Plains, not out on it (Haines). For the sake of argument, lets say the several hundred sites are increased to two thousand sites by future discoveries, and ninety percent of these sites are in the southwestern United States. This put the total number of Paleo-Indians scattered across North and South America at approximately forty thousand with thirty-six thousand in the southwest. Of this thirty-six thousand, lets say twenty percent are hunters, which means there were about seven thousand hunters…the point of this is, no matter how the figures are juggled, there were very few Paleo-Indians, or anybody else, in the Americas between 11,500 B.C. and 10,500 B.C.

The large grass-eating animals lived on the Great Plains…Indians lived on the edge of the Great Plains. With seven thousand Paleo-Indian hunters roaming between the Rocky Mountains and east Texas, it is a stretch of the imagination to think Paleo-Indians had much effect on the “Overkill” of anything, especially Ice Age animals…or that…any people whose ancestors survived the walk from Siberia to central Texas are going to abruptly starve to death when there was plenty of other animals to hunt.

Did the Clovis Indians disappear, or did they adapt a new lithic point and become classified as Folsom Indians?

Folsom Indians 10,900 B.C. – 10,200 B.C.

Another Paleo-Indian site found near Folsom, New Mexico had different projectile points. These supposedly new Indians were promptly named Folsom. Points from the Folsom period are found with the remains of the large plains bison rather than mammoths that dominated the Clovis kill sites. The Folsom Indians used a smaller, thinner, fluted point than the Clovis point. These small points were developed to use with the Atlatl (spear thrower). The spear point from an Atlatl could be thrown several hundred feet with great accuracy. The Atlatl remained the hunting weapon of choice for the Paleo-Indians and Archaic Indians of the southwest until the introduction of the bow and arrow around 100 A.D.


Folsom Point

Plainview-Plano Period 10,200 B.C. – 8,000 B.C.

The Plainview, or Plano, period followed the Folsom culture. The earliest Plainview points were delicately flaked spear point without any fluting.


Plainview – Plano Point

The Paleo-Indians of the Plainview Period were associated primarily with the smaller woodland bison that had moved onto the Plains area from northern Mexico; these were the first Indians to drive animal herds off cliffs and use grinding stones to grind seeds.


Metate and Mano

During the Plainview period several other types of points were found, such as, the Cumberland 10,000 B.C. – 8000 B.C. and the Dalton  8500 B.C. – 7900 B.C. This would indicate that various bands of hunter-gatherers were starting to establish their own culture.

The dates given for the Paleo-Indians are not set in stone. For some bands, the dates could very a few hundred years. In all cases, there were periods of overlapping cultures. This applies to the Archaic period as well.

Archaic Period – 8,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C.

Indians of the Archaic Period were defined on the basis of chipped stone projectile point technology and styles. During the Archaic Period the climate changed from  the cold, wet weather of the Ice Age to a warmer and drier climate. Although still basically hunter-gathers, bone fish hooks and weighted nets were used to catch fish. The range of stone tools included knives, drills, choppers, flake knives, scrapers, gouges, and stone hammers.

The Archaic period is further broken down in to several period. The period from  6500 B.C. to 1200 B.C. is referred to as the Desert Archaic. The Barrier Canyon Indians emerged out of this period. The Desert Archaic Indians were basically hunter-gatherers that put more reliance on gathering seeds, berries, and nuts. The Anasazi culture developed out of the late Desert Archaic period which is considered from 1200 B.C. to 100 A.D.  The Hohokam, Mogollon, and Anasazi cultures emerged out of this period. The arrival of corn from Meso-America signaled the end of the Desert Archaic Period.


Indian Points – Knife – Awl

Woodland Period – 1,000 B.C. through 800 A.D.

Native Americans hunted, fished, planted crops, and created elaborate stone tools during this period which is sometimes referred to as late Desert Archaic. Ground was cleared to plant “the three sisters”: corn, beans, and squash that had been acquired from Meso-America. Relying more on agriculture made it possible to stay in more permanent villages. This led to the develop of pottery and the establishment of trade networks between the various groups of Native Americans including those in Meso-America.

Mississippian Period – 800 A.D. to 1600 A.D.

During this era, Native Americans cleared land by girdling (cutting out a ring of bark to stop growth) or using fire to clear the land. Wood products were used to build more permanent structures during the Mississippian period.

One last point:

One of the most confusing things about Archeology is Archeologists…no wonder there is so much disagreement…they can’t even agree on a dating system.

B.C. (before Christ)
B.C.E. (before the common era)
B.C. and B.C.E. are the same – B.C.E politically correct archeologists
C.E. is equivalent to A.D.
B.P. (Before Present) is used in age determination instead of B.C. or B.C.E. – “Before Present” is academically defined as the year 1950, which is the year B.P. was first used.
R.C.B.P. – Radiocarbon dates or ages, which are constantly changed because of inaccuracy in the technique.
R.C.B.P. (un-cal) same as R.C.B.P.
R.C.B.P. (calibrated) – calibrated to calendar years.

Radiocarbon dating is based on a lot of assumption, such as atmosphere, type of soil, weather, etc, about the half-life of Carbon 14 in relation to the stable Carbon 12 . Another limitation is that this technique can only be applied to organic material such as bone, flesh, or wood. It can’t be used to date rocks i.e. Indian points.

If these adjustment for the political correctness are not bad enough, the term years ago frequently follows the date. Does this mean from today, or from 2,008 years ago??? For a candid discussion of archeologists read the Waldo Wilcox comments on the Range Creek Fremont study in the August 2006 National Geographic.

The settling of North and South America by prehistoric people leaves many questions un-answered. One thing known for certain is that the Americas were populated by people…some by land, some by boat…how, when, or why is primarily speculation with no consensus among the various schools of Archeology.

The Prehistoric Indian article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.

Barrier Canyon   Fremont   Anasazi   Mesa Verde   Hohokam
Buckhorn Wash     Sego Canyon     References

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Barnes, F. A and Pendleton, Michaelene. Canyon country prehistoric rock art: An illustrated guide to viewing, understanding and appreciating the rock art of the prehistoric Indian cultures of Utah, the Great Basin and the general Four Corners region. Wasatch Publishers, Salt Lake City, Utah. 1989.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton, New York, N.Y. 1996.

Dillehay, Thomas D. The Settlement of the Americas. Basic Books, New York, NY. 2000.

Koppel, Tom. Did They Come By Sea? American Archeology Magazine, Spring. 2002.

Haines, Francis. The Plains Indians: Their Origins, Migration and Cultural Development. Thomas Y Crowell Company. New York, N.Y.. 1976.

Gunnerson, James H. The Fremont Culture. The Peabody Museum. Cambridge, MA. 1969.

Madsen, David B.. Exploring the Fremont. Utah Museum of Natural History/University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. 1989.

Schaafsma, Polly. The Rock Art of Utah. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah. 2004.

Stone, Tammy. The Prehistory of Colorado and Adjacent Areas.  University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah. 1999.

Taylor, Allan. American Colonies: The settling of North America. Penguin Books. New York, NY. 2002.

Internet Sources:

Archeology of Horseshoe Canyon

Barrier Canyon Rock Art

Jacobs, James Q – These are excellent sites.

Paleo-American Origins

Pennsylvania Archeology

Paleo-Indians in America