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Early America
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New Discoveries about the

Early, Native & Colonial Northeast


Northeast American Land & First Peoples:

A Visual History & Time Line of Beginnings


I don't believe you can understand Native American cultures unless you are keenly aware that everything they do is spiritually related. Everything. Everything has Manitou, Life: everything is Life in itself. They never designed anything for design's sake....Nothing, from the slightest little thing to the universe itself, was ever taken for granted by Native Americans. Life was in all things, and they respected that life.

There's a huge field that has never been written about, and I call it spiritual archaeology. You cannot understand a lot of the things that have happened, or that are happening, without understanding or at least being aware of that concept. When you do, things become clearer.

CT archaeologist & artist David R. Wagner,
in Conversation with David Wagner: Portrait of an Artist
(Wiltwood/Sasco Productions, 2000)



   Northeast American Coast during the last Ice Age

Most people know that "The Bering Strait Theory"---that the first people reached the Americas from Asia by way of Beringia 12-13,000 years ago---is in question these days. Decades of new digs have located "Early Pioneer" encampments of at least that age in places like Venezuela (Taima Taima) and Chile (Monte Verde).

One of the biggest and most carefully documented digs in North America, the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in east central Pennsylvania, dates from 16,000 years ago. You can see this 20-year study's progress with two issues of National Geographic, from September 1979's issue to July 1997's. The Meadowcroft site cannot be the only one of its kind and age. It tells us how much we have to learn again from the beginning.

Clearly, with an ancient place like Meadowcroft so far to the east, America's first pioneers were reaching these continents from more than one direction. The Northeast is rich with its share of clues that tell us where they came from, when and how.

New research reveals a Northeastern American coastline very different from today's, back in the days of the last great glacier, the Wisconsin. With world sea-levels far lower at this time, about 21,000 years ago, huge tracts of dry land stood clear of the Atlantic Ocean just south of the Wisconsin ice-sheets. As you see, the once-dry coastal plain south of "New England," and the other known bodies of land south of Newfoundland, comprised almost half a million square miles of seacoast.

Northeast Red Paint hunters, dogs, mastodon bones.jpg

"Red Paint People" (often called Maritime Archaic cultures) were sailing and trading along these North Atlantic coasts and the Arctic Circle at least 9,000 years ago---just as the last of the Wisconsin Glacier melted away. If people of the Meadowcroft site were living in Northeastern America even earlier (16,000 years ago), we may someday conclude that their ancestors "began" their American explorations by the common practice of island-hopping in large skin boats, southwards along the huge land-masses that now lie under the Atlantic. Even today, coastal dredge-fishermen bring up tree-trunks and the teeth of mastodons and other animals known to have sustained the earliest Americans.

What was it like for people making their lives along this now-sunken coastline? The land's history provides many clues. This coastal plain sloped gently beyond the familiar "New England" for about 200 miles towards the Atlantic. New England today is a land of huge "derelict" boulders and stony outcrops. Back then it was more like a delta, built up by millions of tons of soil-erosion from the mainland. As the Wisconsin Glacier melted, its waters also raised sea-levels an average of six feet per year. The land evolved from a lichen-rich spruce tundra to grasslands, scrub woods and low brush. As caribou and mastodon grew scarce, the first pioneers held close to the ocean side with its limitless bounties of sea-mammals, birds, fish and other game.

How early and for how long did people inhabit these coastal regions before the Atlantic submerged them around 8,500 years ago? We don't yet know; but they had very likely been there before people reached the inland Meadowcroft encampment. This may be a major missing part of the story of the North American spread of the "Clovis point" as well---which is found in both Western and Eastern contexts.

Northeast Red Paint Family Group.JPG

The small extended-family group above represents "Red Paint People" displaced about 9,000 years ago from the Atlantic coastal plain into familiar New England landscapes. Some of their northern kinsmen are known to have lived in stone-built coastal houses (see the PBS documentary Search for the Lost Red Paint People).

They traded Rama Chert up and down the region and produced extremely well-made tools with "concoidal" edges as sharp as a single molecule. They set up the oldest navigational guides along these coasts with their standing-stones, and carved tools of stone, bone and ivory into stunningly life-like images of killer whales and other creatures---works that rival (and even resemble!) the craftsmanship of ancient Europe at this time. Red ochre, or iron oxide, they used for purposes both spiritual and practical---as an honorific in burials and sites, and as protection from sun and insects.

      The day of the mastodon passes. That of the domesticated "Carolina Dog" (a relative of Australia's Dingo) begins. But the history of the land tells us more of what these earliest Northeastern Americans experienced and witnessed over time. The following art by David Wagner illustrates the research of University of Connecticut's Long Island Sound Research Laboratories, the Woods Hole Research Center (MA), the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, and by geologist Ralph Lewis (Avery Point, Groton CT).

About 250 million years ago (below), a massive erosion of continental bedrock was under way.

NE Land History 1.JPG 

By 20 million years ago (below), its soil-deposits had created this delta-like coastal plain on a bedrock foundation.

 NE Land History 2.JPG

By 5 million years ago (below), a vast depression began to form in this eroded area close to the present-day coastline.

NE Land History 3.JPG

By 500,000 years ago (below), this depression---the future Long Island Sound---had begun to fill with fresh water. It remained this way well into the final Wisconsin Glacier period.

NE Land History 4.JPG

Then, at the southern extreme of that glacier (about 19,500 years ago, below top), a huge moraine formed into which the debris of the glacier, from trees to boulders and soil, began to tumble. The glacier was beginning to melt (below, bottom). The Wisconsin Glacier's melt-waters continued to fill this great depression and, beyond it, raised the Atlantic's sea-levels at the same time.

NE Land History 5.JPG
NE Land History 6.JPG

        Finally (below), about 9,500 years ago, the last bastions of this "glacial dam" gave way between present-day Fisher's Island and Block Island. The Atlantic poured in, and within 500 years formed today's salt-water "sound" around what became Long Island. Laboratory-ships and divers have found all the predictable debris of this huge event in just these places.

NE Land History 7.JPG

Atlantic pioneers had to adapt over time to new coastlines and conditions. Sea-levels rose about 6 feet per year through this warming period, and glacial spruce tundra gave way to broken forest-lands of pine, birch and hemlock.

Have you witnessed the awesome spectacle of today's Niagara Falls? Then you know something of how several generations of the earliest "New Englanders" felt---for at the peak of this event, they could see and hear a torrent of waters 300 times greater than Niagara's. When that coastal dam gave way, they had already been living here for at least 3,500 years.

Northeast Coastal Waterfall, end of Ice Age.jpg


"Prayer Song"

All flute music at Ancient Lights
created in honor of Native scholar Nanepashemet
by Flautist, Performer & Craftsman RON PERRY
(Contact: Wild Wind Creations, at



Turtle with Eggs, Algonquian Rock Art.jpg

From Paleo-Pioneers to Woodland Native Cultures

12,700 Years Ago
--- "Early Paleo-Indian" period: Small bands (average 30 people?) use seasonal camps such as Bull Brook (Ipswich, MA), inland New Hampshire and Vermont sites, and quarry useful stone from Maine to upper New York state.

Through 11,000 Years Ago --- "Middle Paleo" or "Neponset Phase": weapons-points evolving for hunting smaller game; ryolite quarries in New Hampshire; camps at Wapanucket and Neponset (MA), Templeton CT, and Fairfax VT. In the "Late Paleo" or "Nicholas Phase" (named for a New Hampshire site), as pine and oak take over the forests, tools include antler and bone-carving; and the Hidden Creek (Rhode Island) site includes stones quarried in northern Maine.

11,000 to 9,500 Years Ago --- "Early Archaic" period: Large semi-nomadic groups with points including "Clovis" types; Maritime Archaic sites from Port Aux Choix, Newfoundland, to southern Maine, including "spectacular" ceremonialism and artifacts, supported by caribou-hunting and deep-sea whaling.

9,500 to 8,500 Years Ago --- "Middle Archaic" period: Exposed land-masses are submerged, as Maritime Archaic cultures endure 2500 more years; while "Narrow Point" inland peoples speaking Algonquian begin to inhabit southern New England sites. Seals, salmon, birds, beaver, deer and shellfish provide plentiful food-sources.

Northeast Native Spearhead and possible stone Throwing Stick.jpg

8,500 to at least 6,000 Years Ago --- "Late Archaic" period: Earliest atlatls (spear-throwing weights) appear in North Carolina, and by 5000-3000 years ago in the Northeast. Fish-weir traps are built in waterways, while Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard shell-mounds testify to inhabitations into "Woodland" periods below.

Major Transitions Precede the "Woodland" periods --- Maritime Archaic burial mounds begin to give way to trade and/or incursions of Great Lakes "Laurentian" or "Old Copper Culture" peoples: Algonquian-speakers begin more north-coastal occupations through at least the next 700 years. Also, Midwestern "Hopewell" peoples force "Adena" from Ohio regions: their ceramics and ceremonialism begin to influence New England peoples, as do later "Susquehanna" incursions with soapstone-carving and widespread use of atlatl throwing-weights.

killer whale effigy in antler.JPG   'Clovis' point from eastern CT.JPG

3,000 to 2,500 Years Ago --- "Early Woodland" period: "Red Paint" burial grounds; ceramics much replace soapstone; pipes, decorative copper goods and gorgets begin to appear. Corn-agriculture begins to arrive and (by 1500 AD) its ears have tripled in size (Wilbur 28). Algonquian languages ascendant through tribal ways evolving in relation to regional ecology. Cooler, moister weather may cause 1,000 years of "low" population: shellfish (vs. hunting) and sea-fishing grow more important to basic diet.

2,500 to 1,500 years ago --- "Middle Woodland" period: Southern New England peoples pursue seasonal rounds between farming-villages and hunting-camps. Wide trade in all directions: Hopewellian influences continue. Burial-mounds, earth-works, decorated ceramics, stone and copper artifacts. The bow-and-arrow, first known in the Arctic c. 2,000 years before, reaches the region around this time.

1,500 to 1,000 Years Ago (or, to 1,000 A.D.) --- "Late Woodland" period: "Mississippian" influences: more permanent villages and recognized tribal territories --- burials in earth and shell-mounds, ceremonial stone-works and ceramics continue to evolve.

Into the Historic (written-down) and Colonial periods, Native New Englanders number from 100,000-135,000 people.   See the pages and Time Lines ahead.

inscribed clay gorget.jpg

For much more about New England nature and wildlife, explore Book II of Thomas Morton's 1637 New English Canaan, "On The Natural Endowments of the Country."

Click Here to learn more about Native New England Ecology.



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