Drought or Development? Patterns of Paleoindian Site Discovery on the Great Plains of North America

By Seebach, John D. | Plains Anthropologist, February 2006 | Go to article overview

Drought or Development? Patterns of Paleoindian Site Discovery on the Great Plains of North America


Seebach, John D., Plains Anthropologist


The extant dataset of Paleoindian sites on the Great Plains is routinely used to infer land use patterns, mobility and subsistence among the earliest foragers in the New World. Yet, the ways that the data have been accumulated call into question how representative our sample may be. There are peaks and valleys in periods of site discovery that correlate with local or regional environmental degradation, specifically drought, and the rise of CRM activities in the latter half of the 20th century. Areas currently seen to be lacking Paleoindian sites may not have lacked Paleoindian activity; rather, conditions may not have been conducive to site discovery. When speaking about broad patterns of Paleoindian adaptation, we need to remain cognizant of what our dataset contains and its limitations.

KEYWORDS: Paleoindian, site discovery, Great Plains, drought.

The archaeological enterprise begins with site discovery. Within Paleoindian studies, it is well known that the discovery of several key localities (Folsom and Blackwater Draw, for example) has shaped our conception of the subsistence and economy of Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene North American groups (e.g., Meltzer 1993). Yet, as can be said of any suite of archaeological sites, not all Paleoindian sites are discovered by the same means. As this research will show, most Paleoindian sites from the Great Plains of North America are found during periods of large-scale landscape degradation occurring during drought episodes. This being the case, our dataset may be biased towards containing only those sites deposited in areas more liable to erode via aeolian deflation. Though sites from non-erosional landforms may enter our dataset through professional CRM or academic work, these methods of site discovery have not played a large role overall within Plains Paleoindian research.

The relationship between drought and Paleoindian site discovery is recognized among Plains archaeologists (Holliday 2000). The frequent and severe droughts that visit the Great Plains have, throughout their history, had the effect of uncovering many sites dating to the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene. Yet, the significance of this relationship has not been systematically explored. I do so here with a sample of 75' Paleoindian sites from across the length and breadth of the Great Plains.

While drought creates the conditions enabling discovery, discovery itself requires that sites actually be spotted. As will be shown here, more often than not it is avocational archaeologists or surface hunters making the discoveries. And furthermore, avocational/collector activity is intimately linked to erosion events. Professional attention to Paleoindian sites usually comes only after avocationalists notify professionals of their existence.

Knowing the causal factors behind Paleoindian site discovery on the Great Plains has implications far beyond the central United States. The Paleoindian archaeology of the Great Plains has dominated First American research throughout its history, either explicitly (e.g., Frison 1991; Kelly and Todd 1988) or implicitly (Mason 1962). It does so despite the region's generally less dense Paleoindian occupation relative to other areas of the continental United States ( Anderson and Faught 2000). That the Plains have loomed large in Paleoindian studies is significant for two reasons: 1) it may be why Paleoindians are commonly characterized as big-game specialists in all biomes; and 2) most importantly for the purposes of this paper, the Plains are especially susceptible to erosion, creating a situation wherein new sites are often discovered. The onslaught of the "Dirty Thirties," or Dust Bowl years, occurred just as Paleoindian research was building momentum after the discovery and acceptance of the Folsom type-site (Meltzer 1991). Indeed, the first edition of Wormington's classic work was published just as this erosional episode, and the attendant documentation of Paleoindian sites, was ending in 1939. …

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