|First families of Virginia
||[Oct. 20th, 2004|10:42 pm]
Journal of Lithic Prehistory
When people refer to “the Ice Age,” they are usually referring to the most recent (there have been several), which reached its peak about 20,000 years ago. At that time, continental ice sheets covered North America as far south as Pennsylvania. Although Virginia was not covered by glaciers, the local environment would have been very different from what we know today. Strong winds of arctic air sweeping down from the ice sheets created a colder climate. North America tended to become warmer and dryer as the glaciers gradually receded toward the end of the Pleistocene (about 11,000 years ago), with one brief exception --- the Younger-Dryas climatic reversal. During this period, which lasted perhaps five years, winters would have been much colder and wetter than they had been since the peak of glaciation, putting much more survival stress on plants and animals.|
Pleistocene vegetation consisted of a mosaic of open grassland areas interspersed with stands of spruce, fir, and other conifers. Dense pines covered the mountain slopes, except perhaps at the very highest elevations, above the tree line, and deciduous trees grew mainly in poorly drained areas and beside streams. A wide range of extinct and modern animal species would have roamed these forest and grassland areas including mammoth, mastodon, bison, caribou, horse, and giant sloth, as well as white-tailed deer, elk, raccoon and rabbit.
The ancient Susquehanna River system (including the Potomac) carried seasonal meltwaters from the glaciers southward to the sea. Since so much of the Earth’s water was locked up in glaciers, sea level was much lower and the continental shelf was exposed for over 200 miles to our east. The Chesapeake Bay had not yet formed.
Exactly when humans first appeared in North America and where they came from are questions that are still being hotly debated. The traditional view holds that man arrived here through major migrations across the Bering land bridge between Siberia and Alaska at the height of the last glaciation. As the glaciers began to retreat (melt), people followed herds of big Pleistocene mammals south, through an ice-free corridor in Canada about 12,000 years ago, gradually spreading out across North and South America.
An alternative theory is that occupation of the Americas may have resulted from a series of migrations, perhaps going back as far as 30,000 years ago. These migrations could have been over land or water, with people working their way down both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, settling on land that is now submerged by a rise in global sea levels.
Regardless of how they got here, there is evidence that these early hunter-gatherers, known as Paleo Indians, were living in Virginia at least 11,000 years ago. At this time, small bands moved frequently throughout the area, hunting game and collecting plant resources in the spruce/pine forests and grassland environments that predominated. They hunted mostly modern species like deer, elk or raccoon, for the mammoth and other large Pleistocene mammals were likely extinct in this area by then. (By the way, if you like controversies, there is another one raging about whether or not mammoths and mastodons are extinct because early man killed and ate them all.)
Cactus Hill near Petersburg, Virginia, holds the earliest evidence of man yet found in the eastern U.S. On sand dunes adjacent to the Nottoway River, archaeologists recovered quartzite points, blades and cores, along with charcoal and fragments of animal bone in a level about 5 inches below Paleo Indian artifacts. This stratigraphic position suggests that the material is earlier than Paleo Indian, and radiocarbon analysis indicates that the artifacts may be 18,000 years old. The use of quartzite and the manufacture of blades contrasts with the tool-making technology of the Paleo Indians. The tools are remarkably similar to types recovered in France and Spain that were made more than 18,000 years ago. Their recovery has suggested that the earliest settlers in North America came from Europe around the Atlantic rather than from Asia over the Bering land bridge.