Thursday, June 20, 2019

The History of the Paleo-Indian migration to North America and the Jesse Ready Site/Lincoln Hills Site in Jersey County, Illinois.

The first people in North America arrived at least 14,000 years ago. Archaeologists call this period of North American history Paleo-Indian, meaning ancient Indian. Paleo-Indian people left behind distinctive spear points and other kinds of stone tools at Illinois campsites.
A Paleo-Indian spear point; many have been found in Fulton County, Illinois.
Archaeologists have yet to find charcoal from which they could get an absolute date for these campsites, but spear points have been found in other parts of North America in 10,000 to 12,000-year-old deposits.

The Paleo-Indians arrived near the end of the Pleistocene epoch (2,600,000 BC to 11,700 BC), which is also known as the Ice Age. Archaeologists believe the first people crossed into North America when it was connected to Asia by land.

Geologists estimate that ocean levels were at least 280 feet lower during the late Ice Age. When sea level fell, sections of the ocean floor became dry land. For example, large parts of the continental shelf were exposed along the coasts of North America and land linked Asia and North America.

The earth's climate was colder during the ice age than it is today. During the ice age, the snow made up much of the earth's precipitation. Thick layers of snow slowly accumulated at higher latitudes and higher elevations. As snow accumulated, the bottom layers were compressed and transformed into ice and eventually glaciers, slow-moving masses of ice. In North America, glaciers once stretched from the Arctic to southern Illinois. As more and more of the earth's water was transformed into snow and ice, ocean levels fell, exposing large sections of the ocean bottom.
Map of Asia and North America showing 'Bering Sea Land Bridge' called the 'Beringia' and, the possible route of Paleo-Indian people.
Asian people walked across this Asia-America "land bridge," perhaps while hunting animals like the Woolly Mammoth. Archaeologists call the land bridge "Beringia." About 12,000 years ago, rising seawater submerged Beringia, which today lies beneath the Bering Sea. When the earth's climate became warmer, glacial ice melted, sea level rose and submerged land along the edges of continents.

For many years, anthropologists believed that Indians were from Siberia. New evidence suggests that people from other Asian groups also came to North America, perhaps at different times. Scientists who study the shape and size of skeletal remains are known as osteologists. Osteologists study human remains to learn about health, disease, and ancestry. Based on a recent study of Asian and Indian skeletons, osteologists believe that Indian ancestry includes more than one Asian group. Archaeologists have not found skeletal remains of Paleo-Indian people in Illinois. At present, we do not know much about the appearance of these people, how tall they were, how long they lived, or anything about their overall health.


During the Ice Age, complicated interactions between the earth's atmosphere and its oceans caused extensive glaciation. Mile-thick masses of glacial ice extended into Illinois, moving colossal amounts of rock and earth. When the ice retreated, it left broad, flat, plains, some rolling topography, and gently flowing streams. The power, weight, and movement of ice shaped much of the Illinois landscape.

By the time Paleo-Indian people arrived in Illinois, the midcontinental glaciers had retreated northward into the upper Great Lakes and Canada. The glacial ice had begun to melt due to a slight increase in temperature, but the climate in Illinois was still cooler than today. When compared to our weather, the growing season (Spring and Summer) in a typical Paleo-Indian year may have been up to one month shorter; the annual amount of snowfall was greater, and the mean July temperature may have been as much as 5° cooler than it is today.


In a large part, climate determines the plants and animals found in Illinois. Even slight changes in climate can result in major differences in the abundance and distribution of species. As the Ice Age ended, Illinois' landscape was transformed from tundra to spruce (Picea) and black ash (Fraxinus nigra) woodlands mixed with meadows. The annual average temperature continued to rise, and, by 11,000 years ago, a thick deciduous (shedding its broad-leaves annually) forest of oak (Quercus), elm (Ulmus), ash (Fraxinus), and hickory (Carya), like that found in Illinois today.

Ice Age animals in Illinois included species such as mastodon (Mammut americanum), mammoth (Mammuthus), flat-headed peccary (Platygonus compressus), giant beaver (Castoroides ohioensis), long-horned bison (Bison latifrons), and giant stag-moose (Cervalces scotti). Paleo-Indian people saw some, if not all, of these animals, all of which would soon become extinct because of climate change and/or human hunting. They also saw and may have hunted, caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and muskox (Bootherium bombifrons), forms of which still exist, but now in more northerly latitudes such as Canada and Alaska. With a warmer climate came species that are now common in Illinois such as white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), squirrel (Sciurus), and woodchuck (Marmota monax).

The Paleo-Indian economy was based on hunting and gathering resources whose availability was largely influenced by the season of the year and geographic distribution. The availability of plants and animals depends on the season, especially the growing season during which plants produce fruits, seeds, and nuts. The distribution of plants and animals is also affected by the availability of water and by topography. Resources such as stone suitable for tool making were also not available everywhere. The hunter-gatherer economy is a matter of being at the right place at the right time to take advantage of a desirable resource.

Paleo-Indian people depended on foods available seasonally but may have supplemented their winter diet with dried foods. Research says they did not cultivate plants yet. Archaeologists have yet to find a Paleo-Indian site in Illinois with evidence of their food choices, but they did make an important discovery in eastern Missouri just south of St. Louis in 1979. While unearthing the pelvis of a mastodon at the Mastodon State Park - Kimmswick Site, a team of archaeologists and paleontologists discovered a Paleo-Indian spear point. The position of the point suggests that it was lodged in the mastodon's leg muscle. The discovery of the spear point with the leg bone is evidence that Paleo-Indian people hunted this mastodon. There is also evidence that they hunted white-tailed deer and smaller animals. They also may have fished, and they probably gathered a variety of seasonally available foods such as fruits, seeds, and nuts, but we have yet to find evidence for these foods in Illinois or at the Kimmswick Site in Missouri.

Paleo-Indian tools have been found that are made of stone found elsewhere, sometimes hundreds of miles away. At present, archaeologists believe Paleo-Indian people obtained the stone by traveling to its source rather than trading for it. It may be that trade requires at least some permanent settlements, and Paleo-Indian groups moved from place to place too frequently.

Paleo-Indian technology was based on stone, bone, wood, and other natural materials. Many tools were fashioned shaping stone using techniques like percussion--removing the unwanted stone by striking it with a hammerstone or hard bone baton--and pressure--applying pressure with a bone tool to carefully shape the edge of a knife. Most, if not all, Paleo-Indian technology was portable--personal possessions were often moved from camp to camp depending on the season and the availability of essential resources. And, most, if not all, Paleo-Indian technology was flexible--with a limited number of tools, each tool was designed to be used for different tasks. A study of technology includes not only making a tool but also construction that required tools to build such as shelter.

Archaeologists find few artifacts at most Paleo- Indian sites. The artifacts generally consist of hunting tools such as stone spear points, scrapers, and flakes of stone produced in the production or repair of spear points and other tools. It is also likely that Paleo-Indian people made a variety of wooden and bone tools that have not survived for archaeologists to discover.

We have no evidence of Paleo-Indian containers like jars, pots, and bowls. They could have used animal skins, plant fiber, and wood to construct containers for carrying and storing material, but like bone and wood, these materials are not readily preserved.

Stone spear points have been found at most Paleo-Indian sites in Illinois. Large spear points fastened to wooden shafts were effective hunting weapons, and they were also used as knives. They may have used antler, bone or wooden weapons, but archaeologists have yet to find them preserved. Paleo-Indian spear points have a distinctive flute or groove made by removing one or more flakes from the base of the point to improve their attachment to a wooden or bone foreshaft or handle.
Clovis point found in St. Clair County, Illinois.

Like the native people living in the tundra today, Paleo-Indians may have lived in skin tents, which they could easily transport. They probably supported the skins with wood poles and branches collected from trees when they arrived at a suitable location.

Paleo-Indians probably traveled by foot and transported most of their belongings in packs, which they carried, not having animals to do so. They may have left certain tools and containers at locations they repeatedly visited. Based on the small size of these camps and the small number of artifacts, archaeologists believe Paleo-Indian groups consisted of an extended family, parents, children, grandchildren, and perhaps aunts and uncles.

Archaeologists have yet to discover objects that can be attributed to Paleo-Indian beliefs. We can make educated inferences about their beliefs. Throughout the world, most hunters and gatherers believe in a spirit-filled world. Their lives include a variety of rituals to give respect to spirits and to learn from them.

Jesse Ready Site / Lincoln Hills Site, Jersey County, Illinois.
Most Paleo-Indian sites in Illinois represent small, temporary, and rarely revisited camps, based on the small number of artifacts found at these sites.

In contrast, the Ready/Lincoln Hills Site, located along the Mississippi River in Jersey County, Illinois, covers a large area and appears to have been visited many times, and, perhaps, occupied for longer periods of time. Called the Ready Site because Jesse Ready discovered the site and surface collected there for many years, the site is best known locally as the Ready site.
Jesse Ready Site - Lincoln Hills Site location.
This location was attractive because stone used to make tools were readily available nearby. The surface of the site is littered with flakes of stone left from making spear points, scrapers, and other tools. Occasionally broken and used tools are found at the site. These were replaced with newly made tools. After a group repaired or replaced their tools, they moved on to another location that provided different resources. When they needed stone for tool making, they would return to Lincoln Hills or another location where stone was available.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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