Paleolithic North America: Paleoindians at Skare, WI

Who were Wisconsin's first inhabitants?

Understanding the full occupational history of an area is crucial for devising theories related to the cultural and societal developments of people living in the region under investigation. According to archaeological findings, Paleoindians were the earliest human inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere who traveled to modern North America through a land bridge connecting Russia with Alaska, known as Berringia.

At the Wisconsin Archaeology Lab, we study the material remains and movement patterns of Paleoindians partially by examining their stone tools made from chert, a class of rock with high silica content which flakes easily. In particular, we can identify Paleoindian tools through a style of flint-knapping involving fluting chert, or removing parallel flakes from one or both sides of a biface base. Surveys of fluted Paleoindian projectile points found across North America reveals a concentration of these artifacts in the half of North America to the east of the Mississippi River. In Wisconsin, certain Paleoindian sites including those in Boaz and Skare offer evidence of Paleoindian habitation, migration, and hunting behaviors as understood through the stone projectile points found at each location, at times in context with extinct megafauna remains.

Watch the video below to hear Dr. Schroeder’s full lecture, “Paleoindians, the First People in Wisconsin.”

Findings at Skare, WI

Map of fluted points in N. America
This map shows the occurances of fluted projectile points in North America. Image courtesy of PIDBA.

Thousands of years ago, ancient North American Clovis people began removing long flakes from their projectile points, leaving a groove, or flute, in the center of the points which aided in hafting the points onto handles. It has taken archaeologists hundreds of years to accurately replicate this surprisingly difficult and intricate technique, which involves maneuvering a fault on a flintknapping material so that a single, long flake is removed without rupturing the length or chipping off excess. The innovation of the flute did not appear in archaeological records until about 13,500-12,800 years ago, and its occurrence since then has been limited strictly to the Americas. This makes the fluted point a distinct invention of the Western Hemisphere.

Why would the removal of material from a projectile point become such a wide-spread phenomenon in the region? Researchers experimenting with fluted points have found that, far from making projectile points more brittle, the flutes actually improve the durability of the tools due to the flutes’ ability to absorb shock from collisions with animal bone or other hard materials. By extending the life performance of their projectile points, humans became better equipped to travel across long distances without needing to stay close to local quarries, pursuing game or other desirable chert sources instead. Paleoindians could cross up to 300 miles in order to obtain exceptionally high-quality stone to produce their fluted points.

Map of fluted point distribution
Figure 4: Fluted points in Wisconsin distributed by county.

These tools have thus become associated with lifestyles which embraced extensive traveling, either to reach desirable chert quarries or to track big game herds. Found in western and central North America, including at the Skare site, “Folsom” flutes are attributed to a species-specific Plains subsistence pattern focused on bison hunting. This type of fluted point has parallel sides extending up almost entire length of biface and is typically marked by meticulous craftsmanship.

Fluted and Non-Fluted Bifaces
Illustrations of the fluted and non-fluted bifaces found at Skare, WI.

Another type of fluted Paleoindian projectile point is the “Clovis” point. Found throughout North America, these lanceolate points are older and thicker than Folsom points and usually lack their finely-crafted parallel edges in favor of concave ones. They occur most often in association with mammoth bones, as opposed to the attribution of newer Folsom points to bison remains. This pattern indicates a transition from mammoth to bison hunting after the termination of the last Ice Age.

Note that non-fluted points were in use prior to the advent of fluted points, making non-fluted Late-Paleo or Clovis projectile points older than either Folsom or Clovis fluted bifaces.

  • Folsom fluted bifaces:
    Folsom (fluted) points
    Note the variety of chert type. On the top row (left to right) are Prairie du Chien, Galena, and Moline cherts. The bottom row material is Hixton silicified sandstone, with the right base being heat-treated.

    These points would have been much longer at the tip and hafted onto a shaft at the fluted depressions. As wear occurred over the course of utilization, the tips would have been resharpened until they receded to flutes, at which point the objects would have reached the end of their use-life and been discarded.

  • Midland (unfluted Folsom) biface:Midland unfitted biface
    Midland style points are similar to and contemporaneous with Folsom points, but they are unfluted. Midland bifaces are often considered to be Clovis tools.
  • Agate Basin non-fluted biface (Late Paleo/Clovis):
    Agate Basin is an unfluted type of Paleoindian projectile point belonging in the Clovis technology category.
  • possible non-fluted rounded-base Agate Basin biface with outrepassé:outrepassé blade outrepassé blade
    Outrepassé is a manner of flake detachment in which a spall (flake) is removed from a core by striking away from the central margin. This method of flaking can produce points and blades with large central bulbs which taper into sharp edges, such as this lanceolate-shaped biface.
Map of Wisconsin Paleoindian sites
Figure 2. Counties with Paleoindian sites reported in the Wisconsin State Site Files (based on ASI and published data, November 2006).

The Bering Strait model of the populating of North America involves a trend of migration in which people moved southward from the original locus of Siberia/Alaska. However, this hypothesis runs into a problem when considering the geological barriers which Ice Age glaciation would have implemented for migration into the central part of the continent. While ice corridors provided a method of passage for the first migrants from Siberia, the same glaciation would have made permanent habitation within the ice sheets difficult due to the harsh environmental conditions and a literal freeze of resources. As these glaciers eventually receded northward, they would have left behind vacuums of uninhabited spaces filled with freshwater pockets and rocky outcrops.

Is it possible that Paleoindians entered these spaces by traversing glaciers from the north, or that they even maintained permanent settlements throughout glacial episodes? Would there have been an easier way to enter the glacial basin?

When looking at the distribution patterns of Early and Late Paleoindian sites across Wisconsin, a pattern of habitation emerges. It appears that Paleoindians rapidly moved into the resource-rich basin left by the Laurentide ice sheet through the south, not the north.

Hixton silicified sandstone
Samples of Hixton silicified sandstone found at Skare in Dane county, which is about 200 km from the nearest Hixton outcrop. Even in Paleolithic times, valuable lithic materials such as these were traded across vast distances to locations with few local chert sources.

Initially entering southern Wisconsin through river drainages and post-glacial lake margins, people would have begun exploration of the area along water routes containing preexisting resources. As the people moved northward into the de-glaciated parts of the state, settlement patterns of concentrated artifacts indicated that Paleoindians preferred to establish communities near outcrops of chert and water sources, with these habitations occurring more frequently and across a wider range of time in the southern parts of Wisconsin rather than in the north. For instance, the clusters of sites in the west near Trempealeau and Jackson counties are located near outcrops of high-quality Hixton silicified sandstone and Cochrane chert, with both materials dominating lithic assemblages from sites located nearby. In Dane county, occurrences of Paleoindian bifaces correlate with the banks of post-glacial wetlands. It is likely that, as people made forays into an unknown land, they were attracted to these types of resources because waterways and chert outcrops tied into the Paleoindian survival model of hunting and gathering, which required the availability of abundant wildlife and the lithic needed to harvest these resources.