Bones, Boats and Bison: Archaeology and the First Colonization of Western North America

By Pitblado, Bonnie | Plains Anthropologist, August 2002 | Go to article overview
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Bones, Boats and Bison: Archaeology and the First Colonization of Western North America

Pitblado, Bonnie, Plains Anthropologist

Bones, Boats and Bison: Archaeology and the First Colonization of Western North America. By E. JAMES DIXON. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. 1999. xiv + 322 pp, 36 half-- tones, 14 maps, 28 figures, 4 tables, bibliography, index. $49.95 (Cloth, ISBN 0-8263-2057-0), $24.95 (Paper, ISBN 0-8263-2138-0).

E. James Dixon's Bones, Boats and Bison provides an excellent overview of current thinking about the peopling and occupation of North America to ca. 8,000 B.P. The book synthesizes a broad array of literature, making it a valuable resource for professional archaeologists. However, the book's greatest strength may be its accessible writing style. Avocational archaeologists, interested members of the public, and students will find this text both highly informative and refreshingly judicious in its use of jargon.

Bones, Boats and Bison consists of ten chapters, an extensive bibliography, 96 figures (maps, photos and line drawings), and an index. Chapter One introduces the reader to the field of Paleoindian archaeology, reviewing the history of ongoing debates about the antiquity and nature of human occupation of the New World. Chapter Two overviews major theories of colonization of the New World. Here, Dixon discusses the evolution of anthropological thought about the Bering Land Bridge as a migration route to Beringia, and he outlines the rationale and evidence for the midcontinental and Northwest Coast as routes of southward migration.

The next two chapters (Three and Four) review key "pre-Clovis" site candidates from North and South America. Dixon organizes his review by introducing five explicit criteria (first identified by C. Vance Haynes and later applied by Dennis Stanford) for evaluating potential pre- 11,500 B.P. sites. He then applies these criteria to twenty-- six North American sites, including Cactus Hill, Dutton, Meadowcroft, and Texas Street; and nine South American sites, ranging from Valsequillo to the much-discussed Monte Verde. After tabulating the number of criteria fulfilled by each "pre-Clovis" candidate, Dixon acknowledges the growing consensus among archaeologists that humans have occupied the New World since at least 12,500 B.P.

Chapter Five summarizes the database (ca. N = 40) of tightly and reliably dated Paleoindian skeletal remains from North America. In addition to helpful text descriptions, Dixon presents the data in a user-friendly table showing the radiocarbon age, gender, age, height, dentition, pathology, isotope analysis and burial type of all specimens. Chapter Six explains important theoretical concepts, including the meaning of terms like "tradition" and "complex;" the importance and applications of projectile point typology; fundamentals of Paleoindian weapon systems; and changes in weapon systems through time.

In Chapters Seven, Eight and Nine, Dixon overviews the Paleoindian records of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest; the Far West and Mexico; and the Great Plains, respectively. The chapters each discuss a dozen or more representative sites from the target region(s), and they attempt to tie together terminology used to describe the region's sites and artifacts. For example, Chapter Eight ("The Far West and Mexico") reports, explains, and evaluates such terms as "Old Cordilleran Culture", "Protowestern tradition", "Pebble Tool tradition", "Cenolithic", "Western Fluted Point tradition", and "Western Stemmed Point tradition", among others.

The book's final chapter, "Summary and Speculation," offers a good dose of both. Recognizing that some might be uncomfortable with speculative interpretations, Dixon points out that his goal is to "challenge traditional ideas, stimulate fresh thinking, and provoke debate" (p. 244). In this spirit, he concludes that the earliest colonization of the New World occurred around 13,500 B.P. and by watercraft, and he lists nine points of evidence to support his contention. Realistically, Dixon's hypothesis, like any other addressing the peopling of the New World, will raise some archaeologists' hackles.

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