The Palaeoindian-Archaic Transition in North America: New Evidence from Texas

Article excerpt

The Wilson-Leonard site in Central Texas (FIGURE 1) provides a record of human occupations spanning ~13,500 years (Collins 1998). Between ~9500 and 8250 cal BC (10,000-9500 BP) hunter-gatherers at this site manufactured stemmed projectile points, supported themselves with a broad-spectrum economy and buried their dead. (1) This stemmed projectile point occupation, known as Wilson, is stratified between Early and Late Palaeoindian occupations. Wilson points, typical of Archaic designs, pre-date established Early Archaic occupations in the south central US by 2500 years (Collins 1995; Prewitt 1985). Additionally, the Wilson occupation burial (WL-2) is one of the oldest and most complete human skeletons in the Western Hemisphere (Steele & Powell 1992). Unlike most Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene human remains recovered in North America, it is securely dated by radiocarbon and stratigraphically associated with an occupation. The Wilson-Leonard site contains unique clues regarding the transition from Palaeoindian to Archaic societies in North America.


Archaeological background

To understand this transition, we examine the distinctions between the Palaeoindian and Archaic stages in North America. Willey & Phillips (1958: 107-11) in their classic Method and theory in American archaeology systematically; define the Archaic and Palaeoindian stages. They state that the Archaic Stage differs from the Palaeoindian Stage in nine aspects:

1 shift from large animal hunting to exploitation of a variety of smaller animals,

2 increase in plant food use & gathering,

3 increase in the use of plant processing and other ground stone tools,

4 greater number and variety of chipped stone tools some of which appear to have been used for working wood,

5 manufacture of stemmed, corner-notched or side-notched projectile points,

6 greater stability of population with less evidence for high residential mobility,

7 greater use of organic materials for tool manufacture,

8 systematic burial of the dead, and

9 intensive use of stone for cooking in ovens. Many of these distinctions are still valid today (Fiedel 1992); however, the transition varies regionally within North America. Below we briefly review the archaeological record of this transition for the regions surrounding the Wilson-Leonard site.

Between 11,500-7000 cal BC (11,500-8000 BP) in the Southern Prairie-Plains, many Palaeoindian groups exploited megafauna at sites such as Aubrey, Blackwater Draw, Bonfire Shelter, Cooper, Horace Rivers, Lipscomb, Lubbock Lake, Miami and Plainview, even though this period witnessed the extinction of numerous species of megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene (Bement 1999; Bouldurian & Cotter 1999; Dibble & Lorrain 1968; Ferring 2001; Hofman et al. 1991; Holliday et al. 1994; E. Johnson 1987; Knudson et al. 1998; Mallouf & Mandel 1997; Sellards et al. 1947). Non-local lithic materials from sources such as Alibates in the Texas Panhandle and the Edwards Plateau in Central Texas reflect the extensive exploitation of large territories by Palaeoindian hunter-gatherers (Amick 1999). Early Archaic groups replaced Palaeoindians in the Southern Prairie-Plains by 7000 cal BC (8000 BP). They continued to hunt bison, but began to process plants in bulk at sites like Lubbock Lake (E. Johnson 1987). Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene skeletal remains are extremely rare in this region (Young 1988; Wendorf et al. 1955).

Palaeoindians in the US Southwest also hunted Pleistocene megafauna (Haury et al. 1959; Haynes & Hemmings 1968). A few sites with unclear cultural associations and economic evidence date to the terminal Pleistocene and earliest Holocene, but by 8250-7000 cal BC (9000-8000 BP)in southern Arizona and by 6400 cal bc (7500 BP) in northwestern New Mexico Archaic societies had replaced Palaeoindians groups (Huckell 1996; Irwin-Williams 1979). …