The Paleoindian Period in KY

Kentucky Heritage Council

Did you know that people lived in what we now call Kentucky over 10,000 years ago?

Well, they did! The 2019 Kentucky Archaeology Month poster highlights these creative and innovative people.

Archaeologists call the earliest period when people occupied North America the Paleoindian period. Archaeological evidence shows that these people arrived on the North American continent between 12,000 and 25,000 years ago. In Kentucky, archaeologists have excavated sites that date from 9,500 to 8,000 BCE (or about 11,500 to 10,000 years ago). Over 350 archaeological sites dating to this time have been found in Kentucky, and studying these sites allows us to learn more about the people who lived here in the past.

The people who lived in the Paleoindian period were nomadic (mobile) hunter-gatherers. They lived in small groups (20-50 people) and traveled from place to place to take advantage of many different types of resources, like stone for toolmaking.

The climate in Kentucky would have been much colder and wetter at the end of the last “Ice Age” (also known as the Pleistocene). Living at the end of the late Pleistocene would have been similar to living in parts of Canada today. We know it would have been wet at this time because many Pleistocene big game, or megafauna, became stuck in marshy swamps. These large Ice Age mammals include stag-moose, bison, ground sloth, mammoths, and mastodons. Their fossils can still be seen today at paleontological sites like Big Bone Lick in Boone County, Kentucky.

We know about the people that lived in the Paleoindian period mostly through their chipped stone tools (tools made by people hitting one rock with another in a precise manner) that have been documented by archaeologists. Stone tools give clues about these people because the objects have survived in place for thousands of years. The Paleoindian tool kit featured skillfully crafted stone spear points as well as tools used for scraping hides and wood. People also used bone and other perishable materials that have not survived to the same extent as the stone tools. Bone, antler, and ivory awls and sewing needles would have been used to make bags, clothing, and shelter from animal hides and plant materials. Evidence for these perishable materials have been found outside of Kentucky.

When you imagine the hunter-gatherers that lived in this period, most people think they only hunted now-extinct Ice Age megafauna, like mammoths and mastodons. This is a myth. Archaeologists have found clues that people of the Paleoindian period would have used a mixed foraging strategy that included hunting and gathering a wide range of foods. These include large and small game animals like deer and bison, aquatic animals like fish, and plant foods like nuts and berries. Changes in foodways (the eating habits and culinary practices of people) and stone tool technology help archaeologists divide the Paleoindian period into three subperiods.

Paleoindian Period. Kentucky Before Boone. Design & Artwork by Jimmy Railey. Kentucky Heritage Council 1989.

Early Paleoindian: Clovis Technology (ca. 9,500 to 9,000 BCE)

The Clovis stone tool technology is the earliest clue that people were living in the area now known as Kentucky. People who invented this technology crafted unique lance-like projectile points. These stone tools are found across North America, showing that people were very mobile.  Clovis spear points were not just used as weapons. They also could be used as knives to cut and prepare meats and other foods. Their tool kit also had stone blades, scrapers, and cobble tools. While we have not yet found them in Kentucky, tools like awls, sewing needles, and other items would have been made from perishable bone, antler, and ivory.

The people living during the Early Paleoindian period moved often to use a variety of resources, and did not leave a lot behind. Sites found in Kentucky are often small. A few places where megafauna were possibly butchered have been found in Kentucky. These include the Adams Mastodon site in Harrison County, Big Bone Lick in Boone County, and Clay’s Ferry Crevice in Fayette County. These sites are rare in Kentucky. More archaeological research is needed!


Middle Paleoindian: Changing Foodways (ca. 9,000 to 8,500 BCE)

Archaeologists have found more Middle Paleoindian period sites in Kentucky than sites dating to the Early Paleoindian period. During this time, large mammals like the mammoth, mastodon, and giant beaver started to go extinct. Kentucky’s environment and vegetation went through many changes. Kentucky’s forests changed from spruce and jack pine to the mixed hardwoods we see today. People living during this time hunted both large and small game and added more plant resources to their diets. They moved around less because their food was more local.

The Middle Paleoindian stone tool kit had a wider range of tool types than the Clovis tool kit. As people moved around less, they used more local stone for their tools. Stone tools also were made in different styles. For example, Gainey and Cumberland spear points are typical of this time in Kentucky.


Late Paleoindian: End of the Ice Age (ca. 8,500 to 8,000 BCE)

By the Late Paleoindian period, the Ice Age was over and most megafauna were extinct or had moved to cooler regions. Because of the vegetation changes, people continued to eat a broad variety of foods.  Archaeologists know from sites found in neighboring states that people were eating a wide mix of plants, like nuts, and small and medium sized mammals, like deer. As the environment became stable, people did not have to be as mobile as their ancestors, but they still traveled to use many different resources. They also began to occupy caves and rockshelters.

Changes in tool kits occur at this time. Ivory tools disappear because the large tusk-bearing animals (mastodon and mammoth) were extinct. There are also new styles in stone tools because hunting practices changed. In Kentucky these styles include the Lanceolate Plano and Dalton types. These points are often made from local stone materials.

Different types of Project Points from the Paleoindian Period in the southeastern USA. National Park Service (public domain).

Sources:

Tankersley, Kenneth. “Ice Age Hunters and Gatherers” in Kentucky Archaeology. University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

Maggard, Greg and Kary Stackelbeck. “Paleoindian Period” in The Archaeology of Kentucky: An Update. Kentucky Heritage Council, 2008.

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