Pleistocene Adaptation

Table of Contents:

Paleo-American Period:
Physical Environment
Biotic Environment
Cultural Environment

Willamette Valley:
Portland Basin
Clackamas Basin
Tualatin Basin
Yamhill Basin
Pudding Basin
Luckiamute Basin
Mary's Basin
Santiam Basin
Long Tom Basin
McKenzie Basin
Coast Fork Basin
Middle Fork Basin

Paleo-American Period

Who were the first recorded people in the archaeological record in the pacific NW? What were they like?

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Physical Environment

The hallmark of this period is that this is the within, but near the end of the Pleistocene or Ice Age. The term "Paleo-American" refers to human adaptation to, and exploitation of, Pleistocene environments and associated plants and animals.

This was an age of ice and snow. Great glacial ice sheets covered much of Canada and the northern portions of what is now the United States of America. Climates were colder and wetter in this part of the world. Glaciers existed in all of the mountains of Oregon, even the Steens in Harney County. The now relatively dry desert basins in Lake, Harney and Malheur counties were full of large pluvial lakes surrounded by rich grasslands full of large game animals. Harney and Malheur lakes were low spots in a huge lake that drained out into the Malheur River system. Other giant lakes filled the Catlow Valley, The Alvord Desert, the Warner area, the Lake Abert-Summer Lake basin, Alkali Lake, and the Christmas Lake-Fort Rock-Silver Lake basin. About 11,000 years ago, climates began to change towards warmer climates with less snow and rainfall and the lakes began to shrink into marshes, saline lakes, and then dry lake beds.

The Columbia River system is the 7th longest river in the USA and the 9th longest in North America. It drains over 250,000 square miles in the Pacific NW and over 50% of Oregon. Its impact on the cultures of Oregon looms large. The Columbia is also the location of the greatest floods to ever occur on the earth. During the Pleistocene, so much water was tied up in glaciers and snow, that sea levels were more than 300 feet below those of today. This exposed wide continental shelves along Oregon's coast. The glaciers in the Montana area dammed up a series of large valleys that filled with fresh water lakes. The largest was Lake Missoula. The Missoula, Lewis, Condon and Allison lakes covered about 14,000 square miles.

About 15,000 years ago, the ice dam holding back these lakes was first breached, and a flood destroyed about 16,000 square miles of land. This was followed by other floods. These floods were hundreds of feet deep and traveled at perhaps 50 miles an hour. They left behind ripple marks 50 feet high and 500 feet apart under water depths of at least 1000 feet! About 40 (perhaps 70) floods occurred between 15,000 and 12,800 years ago. Humans were here when some of these event happened. About 50 cubic miles of sediments were swept out to sea. Up to 380 cubic miles of fresh water surged out at rates of 9.5 cubic miles an hour! The floods happened on an average of every 55 years for 2000 years! Spokane would have been under 500 feet of water while Richland and Pasco would have been under 800 feet! The Wallula Gap was 1000 feet deep! Ice rafted boulders are found 800 feet above the modern level of the Columbia River. The channeled scablands of the NW were cut by these floods. The Willamette Valley was a back eddy filled with water and ice bergs that as they melted, dumped huge boulders from Montana onto the valley floor and the Portland Basin's wide expanse dropped water levels to 400 feet deep. Erratic Rock near McMinnville weighed 160 tons when first measured and came from Montana on an ice raft.

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Biotic Environment

Giant bison, the ground sloth, mastodon, mammoth, and other giant fauna roamed the grasslands and forests of Oregon. The deserts were covered with lush grasslands. There were huge herds of animals available for hunting. Little is known about plant use during this early period. The first scientific archaeological evidence for human occupation fall into this period as well. The limited data suggest that hunting was the major economic strategy and the plant collecting was secondary or marginal. The ethnographic data from living groups indicates that the only relatively pure hunters are located in climates where plants are simply not available. Where plants are available, all groups exploit them as the primary source of food calories, and hunting is secondary. There is increasing evidence to indicate that plant gathering was more significant, and that the difference between Pleistocene and later Holocene economies is in the hunting of giant-fauna and modern fauna.

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Cultural Environment

The traditional view is that of free roaming big game hunters, following the herds during their annual migrations. Others believe that the hunters were centered on quarries of high quality tool stone, and that they "owned" such sources, and moved around, but within easy reach of the quarry. Others believe there were complex semi-sedentary groups with specialized economies with both hunting and gathering elements where the groups followed a seasonal round from resource to resource or moved the resource to the group for storage.

Some archaeologists use a forager/collector model where foragers gather foods daily and do little storage while collectors gather food for storage for season unavailability. Foragers are seen as very mobile while collectors are more sedentary with specific task groups going to the resource and bringing it back to a storage system of some kind (cache pits, for example). For some, this is also an evolutionary process, with foragers preceding collectors, the change a response to growing populations and resource scarcity.

Dennis Jenkins located human caprolites (poop) in Paisley Caves, a series of eight rockshelters found on the upper terrace of Pleistocene Lake Chewacan. The earliest radiocarbon date on the dung was 14,300 years ago. Since the Clovis related technology is dated 13,200 to 12,900 years ago, this predates any known Clovis artifacts.

The archaeological data is so sparse, that competing models are common. In Oregon, while isolated artifacts have been discovered, only one confirmed Clovis site has ever been found: the Dietz Site near Wagontire. It was discovered by an amateur archaeologist and artifact collector named Dewey Dietz. A number of early projectile point forms have been found scattered around the state. A radiocarbon date of 13,200 year ago associated with a few tools and flake came from Fort Rock Cave, a rockshelter in a bluff near the State Park with the same name. Clovis refers to a site found in New Mexico with a distinct fluted dart.

The primary hunting weapon was the atlatl (or spear thrower) that was used with darts. A trusting spear was also probably used. The darts had a fore-shaft about 12-15 inches long with the large dart point mounted with pitch and wrapped with sinew. This fit into the end of the dart in a socket. A small group of fore-shafts could be kept in a small bag or mini-quiver. The fore-shaft would stay in the animal, and the dart would fall away, so it could be used over and over to throw more darts into the animal (like a repeater rifle).

Experiments with thrusting and throwing darts with the atlatl have shown that penetration by a thrusting weapon tends to be minimal (inches), while darts thrown with the atlatl penetrated deeply (several feet). One the animal was dead, the foreshaft with its large projectile point became a skinning and butchering tool. Thus, everything that was needed to kill and process a kill was in a single weapon system. The dart weight much more than the much later arrow. Its hitting power is like a rifle bullet (dart) when compared to a pistol bullet (arrow). It works very well in open country, as there is a greater arch to long distance throws, than is found in the arrow (dating to the Holocene). It is more difficult to use in closed country. A dart can easily be thrown over 300 feet (the length of a football field). The current world record throw is around 849 feet.

The Dietz Site (35LK1529): It is the only Clovis campsite on record in Oregon. Five areas along the floor of a dry lake basin were identified as Clovis based on the presence of fluted points and point fragments, fluting flakes and blanks broken during fluting. The Clovis areas did not contain stemmed points that were found along the edge of the lake basin at a slightly higher elevation. The site was investigated by the BLM, University of Oregon and University of Washington. The report was done by Judy Willig, Mel Aikens and John Fagan.

The weapon system in use was the dart and atlatl (spear thrower). The darts were compound weapons in that they had a detachable foreshaft that fit into a socket of the dart. The foreshaft contained the stone Clovis points. Each dart had many foreshaft, and the size and shape of the point in the foreshaft could be selected for the game hunted. In addition, the foreshaft with its sharp point could be used as a knife to skin, butcher and filet the kill. Thus this single hunting weapon contained everything needed to kill and process game.

The data indicated that small groups of Clovis people stopped at this location several times to rework broken dart points. The people had collected the foreshaft with their broken stone points, and then camped near an obsidian source so they could remove the broken points and either rework them, or discard them and make a replacement point. They saved up many broken points and came to this location just to repair their hunting and processing tools. For example, six of the twenty-eight tools were broken Clovis point bases. Each of the bases had been manufactured at a different location (made from obsidian not found locally), and had been removed from the haft and tossed away. The flaking debris from making the replacement points was from local obsidian cobbles. This suggests that the group had a large territory with quarries scattered around. Which ever quarry was nearby when they decided to repair was then used to make replacement points. The Clovis occupants brought a greater number of artifacts made from other quarries to this area than the stemmed sites contained.

Twenty-two of the tools were unfinished items or manufacturing failures or flute flakes from successful points removed from the area when they were put onto the foreshaft. Two scrapers were found, one a side scraper made on a flake and the other an end scraper on another flake. In addition, long obsidian blade-like flakes were removed form the local cobbles, probably as knives. I speculate that they may have been used to cut meat from larger pieces similar to the methods used by Eskimo when they are eating.

The sites were located along the margins of a small shallow lake or pond. Since this basin is dry today, conditions were wetter than today. The period of occupation was probably between 11,500 and 11,000 years ago. Later, the lake increased in size and depth, and stemmed points are found in campsites in greater numbers and density. During this time, the lake probably had an 80 meter wide marsh habitat around its edge, providing a great deal of food. The stemmed tradition is dated between 10,800 and 7,000 years ago. The two separate shorelines clearly separated the groups in time and space. The later higher lake level appears to have been stable for quite some time and supported hunters and gatherers in a seasonally productive micro-environment... as the late Judy Willig put it: "a well-watered 'sweet-spot' of food and water resources which would have made it ecologically attractive to these early people"

I have taken the opportunity to introduce a few concepts about this period because of the lack of hard archaeological evidence in this period of time. There is a great deal of difference between an arrowhead and a dart point. Both are projectile points, but they belong to quite different weapon systems.

Dart points were used with the atlatl, or dart thrower. This is a powerful hunting weapon. When the Spanish invaded Mexico, the atlatl dart was used as a weapon, hence the native name for the throwing stick: atlatl.

In experiments on a dead African elephant (named Ginsberg), Errett Callahan (1994) found that "without an atlatl I could only penetrate Ginsberg the length of the point, about three inches - enough to tickle her - but with the atlatl I could penetrate about half the depth of her chest cavity, enough for a sure kill, conclusion - you can't kill an elephant with a Clovis spear without an atlatl" (emphasis as in original) (Callahan 1994:25). He also found that the longer the flute, the straighter the cutting edge, and the better the shaft blended with the point so that only the cutting edge was visible, the deeper the penetration. In addition, the longer the foreshaft, the deeper the penetration unless the foreshaft tapered towards the rear and the joint was blended as much as possible... then the dart shaft would follow the foreshaft into the elephant.

The atlatl is a complete system. How does it work? It has a compound foreshaft, meaning there is a short wood, bone or ivory shaft that contains the dart point and which fits into the longer dart body. This compound system:

  1. allows recovery of the dart. The body of the dart consists of hard-to-find long and straight high quality wood. If the dart foreshaft (on the short foreshaft) sticks in the animal.... as the animal runs away, the movement up and down wiggles the dart off the foreshaft, allowing recovery of this valuable part of the hunting weapon;
  2. allows reloading of a single dart into the recovered dart body ... which reduces the transport load costs of carrying around a bunch of heavy darts. This means the system is like a n-shooter (where n = number of prepared dart foreshafts carried in a small foreshaft quiver);
  3. allows quick loading of animal specific (large, small, etc), or intent specific (penetration, massive bleeding or shock) dart points on foreshafts into the dart;
  4. allows the foreshaft to be used as a knife for skinning, butchering and filleting the downed animal (no need to carry a separate knife).
  5. stores energy storage by flexing during the start of the throw which is released towards the end of the throw. Both the atlatl and the dart flex. The atlatl is designed on the arm length of the thrower to insure natural accuracy. Leverage is increased by stepping into the throw with a swinging gate, catapulting the forearm, and ending with a wrist flick. A dart can be thrown with a side or over the shoulder method.
  6. is designed so that the length of the dart, the weight of dart, its kinetic flexibility of the dart wood, the balance point of dart, the atlatl length, the atlatl shape.

Throwing a dart without the atlatl has little distance and power, but with the atlatl there is amazing distance. Dave Engvall (1995) cast a dart 848 feet with a 4 2 foot graphite dart. Any wood shaft would shatter under such force. Practical distance for a hand thrown spear is perhaps 30 feet. Practical animal hunting distance for a dart is 20-30 yards, but typical long distance for a wood dart is 330 feet (110 yards) (Ray Strischek: unpublished paper on file at SHPO).

Dart Foreshaft

As an additional note, PaleoAmerican dart foreshafts have been recovered. They are often made out of bone or ivory from megafauna and are over a foot in length and longer. As noted earlier, length helps in penetration in megafauna. The raw material had to be split, and then the shafts ground down and smoothed and tapered. This made them relatively valuable items in terms of labor costs for both the material and the process. These shafts have an odd looking end, where it has been cut across at a steep angle. The surface of this cut portion is heavily abraded and incised with grooves into diamond-like areas. Some archaeologists think this is the mounting area for the dart. I believe it is a joint for a double foreshaft consisting of a dart mounting shaft hooked to a tapering shaft that in inserted into the dart body. The rough surface mixed with the scoring makes a friction hold when two shafts are bound together into a longer compound shaft. This would consist of a relatively short mounting shaft containing the dart point which is bound to the much longer tapered shaft by matching its angled rear to the angled forepart. If the dart hits anything hard and cracks or splits the mounting shaft, the crack will travel back to the angled area and "run-out"... protecting the longer mounting shaft from damage. It is my opinion that this is a kind of non-slip joint to stop cracks or breaks from being transmitted throughout the dart and to run them out at the juncture. This protects the relatively more valuable longer mid-section while if the relatively less valuable shorter dart-mounting section is broken or split, less work and material is required to make a replacement. In addition, the combined length allows greater penetration into megafauna vital organs, especially with with the tapering mid-shaft. The main dart body will still fall away for reloading as it has a larger diameter into which the compound foreshaft fits. The Clovis point inside a foreshaft is an excellent example of a penetration style point as only the cutting edge peeks out of the rounded and streamlined shaft.

In experiments with atlatl weights, no advantages were found in distance, power, or efficiency. I believe the weight was a simple counter-weight. Darts are weighted with the heavy end first, similar to the drawing of the dart foreshaft above. Such darts do not need fletching. Fletching slows a dart down and reduces distances and power by as much as 25%. If you hold a dart in throwing position for any length of time, the downward pressure of the dart is pulling on the wrist. An atlatl weight acts as a counter balance to reduce this pressure. This allows the wrist to remain in a more relaxed position for longer periods of time. Weights must be relatively low as large weights can cause extensive and permanent damage to the elbow (as one experimenter discovered - Ray Strischek).

There are three types of projectile points:

  1. penetration style in the form of a bodkin with a tapering point and no wide tangs so that all of the momentum is forward deep into the targets vital organs. Can be designed to fit inside the foreshaft, like the Clovis point with its deep flute allows only the edge to appear along the end of the dart tip;
  2. the bleeding/cutting style that penetrates but also cuts tissue to cause massive bleeding and tissue damage in muscle rather than vital organs. This transfers part of the forward momentum into a mix of penetration, cutting and shock to cripple to slow, or bleed the target into weakness; and
  3. the shock style such as the crescent. This transmits as much of the forward momentum into shock to knock-out the target with minimal penetration. The Paiute cross-stick projectile and wooden rabbit dum-dum are later examples in the ethnographic period. Often used on small fast game like rabbits and birds (often when large waterfowl are molting).

Forget the myths of the "bird point", point size has little to do with use. A small point may simply be an edge needed for penetration for large game as well. If the point edge just barely sticks out from the diameter of the shaft, that may be what was desired to reduce friction as the projectile penetrated deep into the intended target to hit vital organs. Just as the Clovis dart point was intended to be buried inside the dart foreshaft, with only a small cutting edge, the so called "bird" point may be have a similar function on it's foreshaft.

Just as the dart was a composite weapon with a projectile point mounted into a foreshaft which mounted into the dart, later Holocene arrows were composite weapons as well. Projectile points were mounted into foreshafts. In this way, valuable straight and long shafts (which are rare) can be conserved. The foreshaft sticks in the animal, which may run away and be lost. But the valued shaft falls out and is recovered for reuse. A basic act of recycling.

Early "hot glue" was made from pine pitch and finely powdered charcoal or herbivore dung, mixed at about 50-50 and then heated. The additive acts as a grog to keep cracking at a micro level. The additives also make the resulting cold pitch-glue non-sticky to the touch. Sticks are dipped into it like dipping candles. These resulting pitch-sticks were used by holding it over a hot flame to melt some of it and then daubing it onto the area needing glue. Used with sinew, this created a strong waterproof binding for projectile points into foreshafts.

Holocene arrows were compound as well, with a short foreshaft set into a longer main shaft. Good straight wood is hard to find, and one could not go down to the local sporting goods store to buy a replacement shaft. Short straight pieces are relatively easy to find. It is simple economic sense to use compound projectiles. If you shoot a deer or elk and the animal runs away... the movement will jiggle the shaft off where it will fall to the ground. The hunters, tracking the animal will find the main shaft for reuse. Among some groups, a three part system with a short bone connecting the foreshaft to the main shaft guarantees it will fall off as the three part system is very unstable in any situation except direct in-line penetration. The main shaft was drilled a bit, then drilled out with the foreshaft by wetting it and dipping it into fine sand that had been powdered as much as possible. The grit acted as the drilling substance as the foreshaft was rotated back and forth. This process of wetting and drilling was repeated until the foreshaft was stable and gave a perfect match.

In addition, in either the atlatl system, different points could be kept in a quiver and quickly changed for different prey. This gave the hunting systems more versatility.

Willamette Valley

The basins are arranged here from north (base of the Willamette Valley) to south (top of the Willamette Valley).

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Portland Basin

Defined by the Tualatin Mountains on the southwest, the Gorge on the east, and Sauvie Island to the northwest, this basin forms its own sub-area at the confluence of the Willamette and the Columbia Rivers. As Pettigrew put it (1981:5):

As the Columbia River leaves the Plateau and cuts through the Cascade Mountains, it enters the climatologically and geologically distinctive Portland Basin, a part of the larger Willamette Valley as well as of the Lower Columbia River valley...

In the Portland Basin one might consider the Columbia River to be an extension of the Pacific Ocean, since at Portland the tide averages about two feet and tidal fluctuations are observable upstream to about 130 miles from the ocean.

No archaeological data for this period available at the current time.

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Clackamas Basin

No archaeological data for this period available at the current time.

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Tualatin Basin

No archaeological data for this period available at this time.

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Yamhill Basin

No archaeological data on this period available at this time.

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Pudding Basin

No archaeological data for this period available at the current time.

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Luckiamute Basin

No archaeological data for this period available at this time.

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Mary's Basin

No archaeological data for this period available at this time.

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Santiam Basin

Cressman and Loughlin's (1941) account of finding a possible stone tool and bone chisel in association with mammoth bones near Lebanon has been questioned by later research on the chisel indicated it came from a strata well above the mammoth remains. The stone chip may not be modified by human actions.

Cressman (1949) also reported a possible association between two large lanceolate points and mammoth remains recovered in 1895 near Tangent. While the points are old, the data remains hearsay.

Saddle Quarry Lithics

Jenkins (1988) tested the Saddle Quarry site (35MA68) and recovered what appeared to be the base of a Windust projectile point (tool C at right) along with a possible Early Archaic Cascade dart point (tool I at right) and Middle Archaic dart point fragments (Elko and Large Side-notched - tools A and B at right). Ten items were sourced: 7 to Obsidian Cliffs, 1 each from Inman, Newberry Volcano and an unknown source.

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Long Tom Basin

A Clovis point was discovered near the banks of the Long Tom and noted in Freidel (el al. 1989: 99). The Noti-Veneta project stimulated a SHPO funded project to study the alluvial stratigraphy of the Veneta area (Freidel el al. 1989). A dates of 9660 ±140 and 9130 ±200 were obtained from a feature (35LA658), just above the time used to differentiate between Early Archaic and PaleoAmerican. 35LA861 gave a date of 9485 ±90 and 35LA860 a date of 7690 ±80. The data indicated that groups were gathering hazel nuts, acorns and camas and roasting them between 9700-9500 years ago. The Long Tom excavations indicated that beginning about 9500 years ago and ended about 7700 years ago, the soils stabilized after a period of deposition and groups camped on the levees and flood plain . The study blurs the Archaic and PaleoAmerican traditions, suggesting plant gathering was an early and important aspect of the economy.

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McKenzie Basin

A Clovis point was found on the Mohawk River in 1959 in the surface gravel near Springfield was reported by Allely (1975). It had been rolled and scoured down the river from an unknown source. Clovis artifacts date to around 11,000 years ago.

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Coast Fork Basin

No archaeological data available for this period at this time.

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Middle Fork Basin

No archaeological data available at this time.

As noted, the data is very sparse or simply missing. This does not mean that people were not around, it is more likely that our samples are just too poor to find them. Over time, the earliest occupations tend to get earlier and earlier. This is a sampling issue. The earliest sites in North America get older as new sites are found and dated. Recently, the radiocarbon curve for early dates was adjusted, and it pushed back the corrections for dates several thousand years. The dates used in this book are uncorrected (where the raw data was available). This is done because corrections change, and serious researchers can use the uncorrected dates to draw their own conclusions.