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Paleo-Indian Fluted Spear Point

Early Paleo-Indian fluted spear point found in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, and made between 12,000 B.C. and 8,000 B.C.
(Museum object #1985.2)

Humans have been living in what is now the state of Wisconsin for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests the first people entered Wisconsin between 11,300 and 10,000 years ago. This period also marked the beginning of the Paleo-Indian Era or Tradition, which began shortly after the end of the Pleistocene or glacier epoch. The Paleo-Indian era is generally dated to approximately 12,000 B.C. to 8,000 B.C. Due to their antiquity and frequently organic material composition, cultural remains from this period are sparse. However, the durability of stone points, such as this spear point found in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, and acquired by the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1878, have allowed a few to survive, representing some of the only tangible evidence we have today that these early peoples existed.

The term Paleo-Indian is used by archaeologists to refer to the group of cultures whose remains represent some of the earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas. Paleo-Indians are thought to be the descendants of Upper Paleolithic nomadic hunters of Eurasia who eventually traveled down into what is today the United States. In other words, these people were the first human inhabitants of Wisconsin. Paleo-Indians lived in small mobile hunting societies, moving across the landscape in search of food and shelter. They hunted both large and small mammals including bison and now extinct mammoths and mastodons, like the one found near Boaz, Wisconsin in 1897. Wild berries and other plants would also have contributed to the Paleo-Indian diet.

The Paleo-Indian Tradition is divided into two periods-the Early Paleo-Indian Stage and the Late Paleo-Indian Stage. The Early Paleo-Indian tradition is characterized by the distinct production of fluted projectile points, which possess a longitudinal groove, or "flute" on one or both faces (see detail on drawing at left). Fluted points have not been found elsewhere in the world and are thus considered a unique invention of American Indians. The types and frequencies of fluted points vary across the country. However, they are more common and occur in greater variety east of the Mississippi.

Archaeologists have identified three types of Early Paleo-Indian points in Wisconsin: Clovis, Gainey, and Folsom. Clovis points are generally larger and more roughly made than Folsom points. In contrast, Folsom points tend to have relatively long flutes on both faces, while Clovis points generally have shorter flutes, often not extending more than one third or half of the point's length. The flutes also frequently occur only on one side. While Gainey points are extremely similar to Clovis points they differ in that Gainey points generally have longer flutes that often occur on both sides.

We do not know why people chose to flute their points during this period. One theory is that it made hafting easier. Hafting is the process by which the stone point was attached to a wooden shaft, such as in the production of a spear or javelin. The disappearance of fluted points marks the transition from the Early Paleo-Indian Stage to the Late Paleo-Indian stage at around 8,000 B.C. The Late Paleo-Indian stage marks the first appearance of stemmed points. This new technology, evidenced by points found throughout Wisconsin, further increased the ease and quality of hafting. Stemmed point technology continued throughout most of the pre-contact period in Wisconsin.

Paleo-Indian points were typically made from locally available materials such as flints from Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, and highly desirable orthoquartzite found at sites in western Wisconsin. This point from Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, however, is an example of the difficulty sometimes encountered in assigning a point to a specific type. Made from chalcedony, a raw material possibly originating from North Dakota, and fluted on both faces, this point can possibly be assigned to the Gainey type. Point categories, however, like other historical and archaeological categories, are often highly subjective; there exist no definite boundaries or definitions. Varieties of types occur, just as people and their personal preferences vary.

The Paleo-Indian tradition in Wisconsin is believed to have ended around 8000 years ago. New technologies, subsistence strategies, and cultures evolved, referred to today as the Archaic Tradition.

Fluted points are an example of the incredible ingenuity and resourcefulness of the early peoples that inhabited Wisconsin. More than 750 Paleo-Indian sites located in Wisconsin exemplify the rich cultural heritage of our state.

[Sources: Information about the 1897 Boaz mastodon discovery can be found at www.wisconsinhistory.org/archaeology/ and
www.geology.wisc.edu/~museum/collections.html; Archaeological Sites Inventory; The Wisconsin Archaeologist, V. 78, No. 1/2, January-December 1997: 78-112; personal communication with Marlin Hawley, archaeologist for WHS Museum Archaeology Program.]

EBG


Posted on January 03, 2008

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