Why I’m excited (and a little frustrated) about Paleoindian archaeology over the last year…

In the last year, it was a pretty exciting time to be a Paleoindian archaeologist.

First, the DNA study on the Anzick remains were published, which established a definitive link between a child buried with a Clovis cache, east Asian populations, and modern Native American populations.


A few months later, the oldest and most complete skeleton in the New World was found in a sinkhole in Mexico. She appears to be a young woman (Naia) who fell to her death at least 12,000 years ago.


Last Fall, a new paper published on the Upward Sun Rising site in Alaska showed that two additional sets of cremated remains were found below the original cremation. In other words, an interesting and important site got even more interesting and important.


And then today, I saw that a journalist filed a “Freedom of Information Act” request for emails pertaining to a DNA analysis of the Kennewick Man. The preliminary results from the lab indicate that “At present there is no indication he has a different origin than North American Native American.”


I think you could easily make an argument that Paleoindian archaeology has made a big leap in the past year. As the kind of person that nerds out about this stuff, I find it all very, very exciting. The connection between Asia, Berengia, and North America has been firmly established through a growing sample of DNA studies on early remains.

Why am I frustrated? The media reporting of some rather outlandish claims by people who should know better.

Let’s take this passage from the latest popular article on Naia from National Geographic. (Italics are the original text, and bolded passages are my thoughts as I read through it).

Together these remnants may help explain an enduring mystery about the peopling of the Americas: If Native Americans are descendants of Asian trailblazers who migrated into the Americas toward the end of the last ice age, why don’t they look like their ancient ancestors?

Because more than 12,000 years have passed, and there have been several subsequent migrations into the Americas including a tidal wave of Europeans. That’s a lot of environmental change and genetic admixture. The size and shape of crania aren’t static. It’s not shocking that their crania look different than their modern counterparts.

By all appearances, the earliest Americans were a rough bunch. If you look at the skeletal remains of Paleo-Americans, more than half the men have injuries caused by violence, and four out of ten have skull fractures. The wounds don’t appear to have been the result of hunting mishaps, and they don’t bear telltale signs of warfare, like blows suffered while fleeing an attacker. Instead it appears that these men fought among themselves—often and violently.

Based on what samples? Where is he drawing the line in the sand for “Paleo-Americans?” Because, I seriously doubt there’s enough adult Paleoindian (i.e. older than the end of the Younger Dryas) skeletons out there to back up that claim with statistics, even if he were to include Windover in Florida (which is Early Holocene). Technically, even Kennewick is Early Holocene, not Paleoindian. So, in order to make that claim, you have to cast a huge net over time and space to capture enough individuals for a legit analysis. 

And as a caveat, I’m not a physical anthropologist or a person who would claim to be an expert on prehistoric violence or warfare. But it’s easy enough to read articles by people who are.

For example, here’s a quote from George Milner’s (1999:120) review article on violence and warfare in eastern North America: 

Victims of violence are known for the entire period for which there are skeletons in eastern North America; that is, from the Early Archaic period onward. Of 106 sites with reported casualties, 24% date to Archaic times. These sites do not occur with any regularity, however, until the late Middle to Late Archaic periods (the precise dating of skeletons from old excavations of long-occupied sites is often ambiguous).

While that quote is restricted to eastern North America, a continent-wide review by Lambert (2002) echoed this statement. If anything, demonstrable evidence for the kind of violence described by the National Geographic quote happened much, much later. 

The women don’t have these kinds of injuries, but they’re much smaller than the men, with signs of malnourishment and domestic abuse.

Again. What’s the sample here? One of the perks of being a Southeastern Archaeologist is that at some point, you’ve probably read Maria Smith’s work, and in particular an article on parry fractures in the Late Archaic shell sites in the Lower Tennessee River. She makes a pretty convincing argument that the frequency of parry fractures is no more frequent in females than males. So, even in a place and time where scalping and other forms of trophy-taking are occurring, an argument for female-direct violence is REALLY hard to make. Not to say that it didn’t happen. I’m saying it’s just hard to demonstrate that it did happen, even when you have great sample sizes like in the Late Archaic Mid-South. We do not have anything comparable as far as sample size with available Paleoindian skeletons. 

To archaeologist Jim Chatters, co-leader of the Hoyo Negro research team, these are all indications that the earliest Americans were what he calls “Northern Hemisphere wild-type” populations: bold and aggressive, with hypermasculine males and diminutive, subordinate females. And this, he thinks, is why the earliest Americans’ facial features look so different from those of later Native Americans. These were risk-taking pioneers, and the toughest men were taking the spoils and winning fights over women. As a result, their robust traits and features were being selected over the softer and more domestic ones evident in later, more settled populations.

A “Northern Hemisphere Wild-Type.” While I appreciate the creativity behind his interpretation, this is not a thing. 

When I was an undergrad, I read a book called “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your History Textbook Got Wrong.” I remember being struck by the author’s devastating critique of high school history textbooks for treating Native Americans as noble savages who were doomed to go extinct in the face of Manifest Destiny. Using the phrase “wild type” runs the risk of perpetuating the “noble savage” rhetoric. The fact that this made it into a magazine with such a wide audience is startling, and disheartening. 

And finally, assuming that the initial colonists were “risk taking pioneers” is also problematic. Given that the early colonizing populations were likely small, quite a few folks who study Paleoindians have made arguments that they were risk-averse since lost members couldn’t be replaced quickly (see Meltzer 2004). 

I’m going to stop here, but I really, really struggle with balancing the excitement of how far we’ve come in understanding the colonization of North America in the last year with the frustration at how this information gets transmitted to the media.

Surely, we have better ways to handle our time in the spotlight.

UPDATE: I am not the only one that feels this way, it seems. Pfeifer at al critique and Woodroffe et al response_Fences_Science_25-07-14


Lambert, Patricia
2002  The Archaeology of War: A North American Perspective. Journal of Archaeological Research, 10(3):207-241.

Meltzer, David J.
2004  Modeling the Initial Colonization of the Americas: Issues of Scale, Demography, and Landscape Learning. In The Settlement of the American Continents: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Human Biogeography, edited by C. Michael Barton, Geoffrey A. Clark, David R. Yesner, and Georges A. Pearson, pp. 123-137. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Milner, George R.
1999  Warfare in Prehistoric and Early Historic Eastern North America. Journal of Archaeological Research 7(2):105-151.

Smith, Maria O.

1996  Bioarchaeological Inquiry into Archaic Period Populations of the Soutehast: Trauma and Occupational Stress. In The Mid-Holocene Southeast, edited by K. E. Sassaman and D. G. Anderson, pp. 134-154. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

1996  ‘Parry’ Fractures and Female-directed Interpersonal Violence: Implications from-the Late Archaic Period of West Tennessee. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 6: 84-91

2014 in review

This is fun to look at. All in all, we’re closing in on 30,000 views since we started this blog.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 17,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.