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New perspective: a new generation of archaeologists is throwing a different light on old questions and offering some surprising answers.

Stone arrowheads and spear points, potsherds from earthenware and ceramics, and countless other W artifacts of everyday life: these are at the core of archaeological research. Taken at face value such objects can tell us a great deal about the human story, prehistoric and historic.

But when archaeologists ask other, deeper questions, the exploration can lead to surprising and unexpected discoveries. I was reminded of this recently when a young colleague named Metin Erin visited the ROM to look at some collections I excavated 30-odd years ago. The material came from sites once occupied by Ice Age hunter-gatherers (Early Palaeo-Indians) who colonized parts of Ontario roughly 11,000 years ago, shortly after the final retreat of the continental ice sheet.

An anthropological archaeologist at the University of Kent in the UK, Metin is also an expert flintknapper, that is, he is skilled at making stone tools just as they were made by Early PalaeoIndians. Through the work of his colleagues and his own experiments, Metin became convinced that the most ancient Early Palaeo-Indians--called Clovis (after an archaeological site in New Mexico)--shaped stone spear points in such a way that they often removed, intentionally or not, large, thin flakes that extended from one edge of the artifact to the opposite edge. These so-called overshot flakes were a by-product--waste--of thinning a distinctive type of spear point that occurs on Clovis sites throughout North America.

Metin came to the ROM looking for information he needed to complete his PhD dissertation. During the course of that work he saw something totally unexpected: overshot flakes at a site that I thought had been occupied in post-Clovis times. The site, which I called Red Wing after a nearby village, is located southwest of Collingwood, Ontario, near the crest of the Niagara Escarpment. Re-examining the Red Wing collection, Metin discovered that the people at that site frequently produced overshot flakes, and he concluded that the site had been occupied by Clovis people, not some later group as I had thought.

Metin's conclusion was a huge surprise; because Clovis had not previously been reported in Ontario or the Great Lakes region, I hadn't been looking for Clovis at Red Wing but for their descendants. I had found a small fragment of a worn-out, Early Palaeo-Indian spear point (I thought made by a descendant of a Clovis knapper) and a handful of other tools widely used by many groups of Palaeo-Indians--both Early and Late. I hadn't looked beyond the tools, unlike my younger colleague, to observe the clues hidden in the waste debris, revealing the technology that produced the tools.

This was a revelation to me. It made me realize that for archaeologists, Clovis people are "shape-shifters," peoples who appear in different forms at different times in archaeological history. When first discovered in the 1930s, Clovis people were identified by their distinctive and skillfully made spear points. With the discovery of numerous mammoth--and bison--kill sites in western North America over the next several decades, Clovis people were seen as specialized big game hunters. But without the evidence of spear points similar to those first discovered at the classic Clovis site in New Mexico, the people themselves were hard to track across the landscape, hence their seeming absence from the Great Lakes region.

Metin and other specialists in the art of flintknapping have given us a new way to search for Clovis: by looking not only at the tools they made but how they made them. Using this knowledge, archaeologists should be able to track Clovis people both across the landscape and through time. This promises to tell us much about the origins of Clovis culture and how it changed through time, how Clovis people met the challenges and opportunities of North and Central America, a land not previously known to them, and how they adapted to rapid and dramatic climate change during the closing phases of the last Ice Age. But perhaps the most interesting knowledge they can provide is this: Clovis people can tell us how they became one of the most adaptable and successful colonizing people in all of human history.

Thus begins a new chapter of archaeological research. As with previous chapters, this also will be written by a new generation of scholars inspired by collections such as those held by the ROM, and the promise of new, exciting discoveries in the field.

The life history of a spear point

1 Tool blank made by overshot flaking (showing two overshot flakes, in yellow). The overshot flakes were discarded by the knapper and recovered archaeologically at Red Wing.

2 to 4 Successive stages in the re-sharpening of a spear point. Note (for orientation) the large thinning flake scar at the base of the spear point (stage 5 in diagram and image to right) is not present on the blank because the thinning flake was removed during a much later stage in manufacturing the spear point.

5 The last stage of the worn-out spear point: a short and blunt projectile centred around the original thinning flake scar. The tip of a worn-out projectile was discarded by a hunter at Red Wing and recovered archaeologically; the base was not found. The illustration shows that, for this type of spear point, the cultural identity of the person who made it may be revealed by studying the details of manufacture if more complete forms of the spear point have not been recovered.

PETER STORCK is curator emeritus of New World Archaeology in the ROM's department of World Cultures. He is also the author of a book for the general public on his research, Journey to the Ice Age, published in 2004 by the University of British Columbia Press in association with the ROM.
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Author:Storck, Peter L.
Publication:ROM Magazine
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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