Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Were They The First People Here?

We tend think the earliest-known people to inhabit this region were the most primitive, but that isn’t necessarily so. The artifacts they left for us indicate they may have been more sophisticated than subsequent cultures for ten thousand years after.

Not much remains but stone, but what wondrous ways they fashioned it. Their projectile points were meticulously made and quite beautiful to behold. One of the first of these Paleo-American points, and most classic ever found in the state of New Hampshire, was picked up somewhere in Intervale, between Conway and Bartlett, New Hampshire. It couldn’t be precisely dated because the exact site where it was found is uncertain, but it is thought to be about 11,000 years old. It would have to have been found in its original position to be properly evaluated. It’s kept now at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC and was made of Munsungan Chert, for which there is only one known source - 200 miles away to the northeast in Maine. It’s a pretty, red stone, and I’ve found smaller samples of it near the Saco River in nearby Fryeburg. Munsungan Chert and other stone types were used by subsequent cultures as well, and the samples I found aren’t nearly as old as the Intervale point.
Mount Jasper Mine Berlin, NH

Another stone material they used comes from a mine in Berlin, New Hampshire, which was continually used for over ten thousand years by many cultures. It comes in many shades depending on its exposure to weathering elements and I find samples of it in Fryeburg as well. The most common type I find over this way is a dark, gray stone from the Ossipee Mountains just south of Conway. Another common stone I find there is from Mount Kineo on Moosehead Lake, which is a dark speckled gray/blue. The most interesting, however, were two small pieces from far-away Ramah Bay in northern Labrador. Clearly, these early Americans got around much more than we originally thought.
Many of us today live on the side of a hill to enjoy the view. Ten thousand years ago, the earliest-known Americans in these parts did the same thing. I had to clear an acre and a half of trees to get my view over to New Hampshire’s White Mountains, but there were no trees around here ten thousand years ago when Paleo-Americans roamed the landscape. I like the view for aesthetic purposes, but those early Americans, probably liked it to scout game. The landscape they looked out on had the same mountains we have today, but with no trees they could see much more than we can. The lowlands contained grasses and small spruce, but that’s it, so herds of large mammals could likely have been seen from a long way off.
The glaciers had just melted away and the southern edge of the receding ice sheet wasn’t too far off to the north-northwest. There were huge glacial lakes all around. Kezar Lake here in Lovell was about three times its present size. It wasn’t a hospitable environment for humans, but big mammals liked it, especially caribou, but probably mammoth and mastodon too. The big spearpoints they made were evidently effective at dispatching them too. Some anthropologists think their fluted points were so effective, Paleo-Americans hunted these last two species to extinction. “Fluted” means there was a kind of channel fashioned in the center part of the point -probably to facilitate mounting it on a spear shaft.
Jefferson New Hampshire dig in 2011

Other sites in New Hampshire have produced stone - “lithic” - evidence of Paleo-Americans including Effingham, Jefferson, and locations along the Merrimac River. More are turning up as New Hampshire has required archaeological surveys for large construction projects. Maine requires this as well and, twenty years ago, a site in Oxford, Maine containing Paleo-American artifacts was discovered this way along the Little Androscoggin River near the WALMART store being built there.
So far the earliest evidence of humans in Maine comes from what is now the bottom of Aziscohos Lake in Maine near the borders of New Hampshire and Quebec. A fellow named Vail from nearby Stoneham, Maine was looking for lost fishing tackle while the lake was down and came across some interesting artifacts. This was reported to archaeologist Mike Gramly who excavated there for about twenty years, and published the results in several books. Early Mainers were evidently hunting caribou in that area sometime around ten or eleven thousand years ago, long before a dam was built in Wilson’s Mills to form present Lake Aziscohos.
As I sit on my back porch writing this, I can look out over the ancient landscape and imagine what it looked like in Paleo-American times. I can drive my truck and ATV to remote sites, but they most likely walked. I call them Paleo-Americans as Mike Gramly does, because we don’t know if they were ancestors of today’s Indians. Today’s Abenaki Indians in Maine and New Hampshire claim to be descendants of Paleo-Americans, but there are interesting theories being proposed recently that they may have been related Solutrean people from what is now northern Spain who crossed over around 25,000 years ago.


Alex said...

Interesting post, Mr. McLaughlin. Quick question: do you know if archaeologists/anthropologists have some sort of confidence measure for the sourcing of the different types of stone you mentioned? For example, you mention that one type of stone source has only been found up in Canada. But I could envision some big piece of land in Maine that has never been surveyed geologically also containing that stone.

Tom McLaughlin said...

We should always qualify statements about these things and I try to. We say there is only one "known" source, or they are the "earliest-known" people to have inhabit the area, etc. There could be more discoveries at any time.

I've asked Mike Gramly - the archaeologist who supervised the excavation of the Vail site - a similar question. He is confident the Paleo-Americans knew more about these sources than we do. He was director of the Maine State Museum for a while in the seventies or eighties. He said they roamed the region on foot, and could see more exposed bedrock than we can now with the forested landscape and resulting duff covering the ground. He said they were always alert for sources of workable, or "knappable" stone.

Gramly finds lots of clear, crystal quartz pieces in his excavations. So do I in my meanderings around the tilled fields of north Fryeburg along the old river. It can be found on many hilltops around here, but Gramly is convinced there's one particular source somewhere in this region from which the Paleo-Americans drew theirs. It's a very difficult stone to knap, but it's the hardest and keeps its edge longest. They liked colorful stone and seem to have been drawn to the quartz for its beauty the way we're drawn to diamonds. They seem to have had a strong aesthetic sense.

Regarding the Ramah Chert I mentioned, Dennis Stanford at the Smithsonian told me there's a similar stone in northern Quebec somewhere and positive identification can only be made by some kind of spectrometer. I showed one of my pieces to Arthur Speiss, Maine's senior archaeologist, and asked him what it was made of, and he said: "Ramah." He's been up there to Ramah Bay to see the source for himself. So has Gramly.

Anonymous said...

The Gods Must Be Crazy
Seasonal migration following "the herds", the weather, or maybe the "growing" seasons. Trade (pre AND post knapping)with folks happy(ish) with an adjacent "zone's" bounty. And of course great scowering and bulldozing glacial moraines and eskers.
I can easily see stone traditionally found "in the ground" from waaaaay up north and west, (if one is to look at the lakes in western Maine)ending up in say...Portsmouth. Where the whole "anthro.." bit came into play can only be a matter of contextual conjuncture I would imagine.
Nice hobby, but could I recycle the Intervale Stone as a weapon to stop extension of the North- South road? (which I propose be renamed "B Avenue"!)

Alex said...

Thanks for the response! If you have never been, you should try to visit Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado. Not only is that area one of the most beautiful in our country, the natural history is fascinating.