When was North America First Settled?

At the 2016 SOK forum Dr. Peter L. Storck, an archaeologist from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, described his work at an archeological site at Sheguiandah, on Manitoulin Island. He also discussed the controversy around when humans first came to North America.

Dr. Storck described how, at the end of the last Ice Age, small groups of hunter-gatherers crossed from Siberia to Alaska and permanently settled the American continent. Many of these groups left little or no trace but one group – known as the Early Paleo-Indians – left a distinctive archaeological record about 11,500 years ago and they expanded rapidly throughout North America and, eventually, into South America.

One of these sites is at Sheguiandah on Manitoulin Island. There are stone tools in abundance, quarried bedrock from which the stone was obtained and a 50 year old controversy over whether people had actually lived there before the Ice Age.

The site was discovered by archaeologist Thomas Lee, of the National Museum of Canada, in 1951. He excavated the site for the next four years. Many of his finds put Sheguiandah on the map for having the oldest traces of man in Ontario. These included Paleo-Indian spearpoints, about 10,000 years old. However, when geologists told Lee that artefacts found under the spearpoints were in Ice Age deposits this called into question the conventional belief that man had not settled in North America before the last Ice Age. Hitherto the established wisdom was that a group called ‘Clovis Man’ who were spear-throwing hunters were the first humans to enter the Americas and they did so after the Ice Age. Lee made a forceful case against this view but the established authorities did not want to hear it.

Opposition to Lee’s views brought his work to a premature end. His academic papers were rejected by leading journals and he never got another chance to work on the site. For a long time, neither did any one else. In 1987, Shenguindah was known as ‘Canada’s most neglected major site of the past 30 years.’

Finally, nearly a decade after Lee’s death in 1982 the site was re-opened in 1991 by a group jointly led by Patrick J. Julig of Laurentian University and Storck himself. They re-evaluated some of Lee’s original evidence and came to the conclusion that the site is only10,500 years old, just a little younger than Clovis Man.

photoIn their work, archaeologists look at collections of ancient specimens in situ and draw conclusions about who made them and why, based on knowledge they have acquired elsewhere. At Sheguiandah, this is so for only a few dozen spear points (including the one shown here) and all concerned — Lee, Storck, and Julig — agree that these are mainly late Paleo-Indian dating from about 10,000 years ago. However, there is no agreement on who made the masses of other stone tools and debris that cover the Paleo-Indian spear points, or the quite different artifacts buried underneath them. Lee claimed the latter had much in common with Old-World paleolithic cultures of 30,000 or more years ago – long before Clovis Man.

The geological context of the artefacts provides a second body of evidence. Geological events such as Ice Ages, high water levels in the Great Lakes, and the erosion of rock over immense spans of time leave traces that can be fitted into broader chronologies. If the artefacts are associated with those events, then something is known about their age, too.

The geologists Lee worked with told him that the older tools he was finding were in sediments directly deposited by ice age glaciers and that would mean that the Paleo-Indians were not the first people. It would mean that people had lived on the site before the last major advance of the Ice Age.

The geologists who advised Storck and Julig looked at these same deposits and concluded that they were part of a beach created by a high-water lake, which occurred at the end of the Ice Age, about 10,500 years ago.

Essentially, Lee interpreted the deposits as layers which accrued over time and Storck and Julig believed the sediments were the result of mixing generated by the water action of a post ice age lake.

Storck said that in Lee’s view, early peoples lived and left their stone tools on the Sheguiandah hilltop in a warm period before the last major glacial advance. The returning glaciers caught up and moved those tools – but only a few yards or tens of yards. The tools stayed locked up under the ice for tens of thousands of years, until it melted away. Then a succession of Paleo-Indian and Archaic groups migrated along the north shore of a subarctic Great Lake. Each stopped briefly at Sheguiandah, leaving a scattering of spearpoints and other stone tools (maybe 5% of the total archaeologists now find) on top of the glacial till deposits.

Storck and Julig, by contrast, envision Paleo-Indians as the first humans and principal inhabitants of the site, arriving about 10,000 years ago, after the Ice age was over. Natural mixing introduced these and Archaic peoples’ artifacts into beach sediments, which Lee has mistaken for glacial deposits.

Dr. Storck has described his explorations of Ontario in a fascinating and readable book: Journey to the Ice Age, Discovering an Ancient World.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s