Our First Native Americans – #7 – Paleo Lithic Cultures – David Haysley

Our First Native Americans – #6 – The Cultural Stages – David HaysleyThe cultural changes that our first citizens experienced over the first 15,000 to 25,000 years were classified as the:

  • Paleo Lithic Stage
  • Archaic Stage
  • Transitional / Formative Stage

Studying the Native Americans during these ancient times has proven to this novice that they were extremely resourceful and intelligent. This paper discusses the first stage, the Paleo Lithic Cultures which included the Clovis, Sandia, Folsom and Plano Cultures.

Paleo-Lithic Stage

The Paleo-Lithic Stage of North American cultures were those of the earliest period of their occupation in the North America occurring during and after migration (before 8000 years ago).

The word “Lithic” (as an adjective) is defined as – “pertaining to or consisting of stone”.  Therefore the term “Paleo-Lithic” describes a culture than deals with a “STONE AGE” culture.

The “Paleo-Lithic” cultures of the hunters and gathers in North America are based on the type and appearance of their  stone tools (especially spear points).  Archaeologists and anthropologists use the crafted tools found in discoveries of ancient sites to classify early cultural periods.

Paleo Lithic ToolsPaleo-Lithic Tools

The Paleo-Lithic North Americans used flint, chert, and obsidian stones with a “flaking” technology to make tools such as knives, choppers, scrappers, and spear points.

Flaking Technology  Spear Head Materials

Lithic Stage Tool Making Using “Flaking” Technology and Spear Head Materials

With the progression of time, and due to climatic conditions and geographical locations the Paleo Lithic cultural stage experienced changes which were identified and classified based on the technology of their stone tool, again with an emphasis on their projectile points (spear points):

  • Clovis Culture (11,000 to 13,000 years ago)
  • Folsom Culture (10,000 to 11,000 years ago)
  • Sandia Culture (10,000 to 11,000 years ago)
  • Plano Culture (6500 to 10,000 years ago)


Image of Woolly Mammoth Hunting During Paleo-Lithic Cultural Stage

Clovis Culture

The Clovis culture, appearing around 11,000 to 12,000 years ago, was first exposed with the archaeological discovery near Clovis, NM (Backwater Draw (Stream)) in 1929 from which it derived its name.

Clovis NM   Clovis Site

 Clovis NM and Archaeological Site at Backwater Draw

Since this initial discovery thousands of Clovis Culture artifacts have been found in over 1,500 locations throughout most of North America. With such a large number of locations, these finds show that the spreading of this culture happened very fast in terms of archaeological standards.

Major Clovis Sites

Clovis Sites

The Clovis lithic technology was found in artifacts from Beringia but not found in any artifacts from Siberia.  Clovis technology appears to be an enhancement of the lithic spear head (projectile point) design developed after arrival in North America.

The Clovis spear head is slender and leaf shaped, with convex sides and a concave base which was notched, most likely for installing the spear shaft. The edges were fluting half way down from the point providing a sharp edge on each side. The length ranged in from 1 1/2 to 5 inches and the width was about 1/3 of an inch.

Clovis Spear Head

The Classic Clovis Culture Spear Point

Clovis Spear

Example of Clovis Spear Point Connection to Spear Shaft

Clovis Cultural artifacts that have been discovered also include other survival tools such as bone tools, hammer stones, and scrapers.   The tools would have been used for butchering as well as making additional tools.  Cultural distinctions are not as obvious with these types of paleo-lithic artifacts.

Clovis Tools

Clovis Culture Tools

It has been concluded that Clovis people were nomadic and they did hunt mammoths, as Clovis spear points have frequently been found in sites containing mammoth remains. The mammoth was not the only source of food however; smaller animals as well as many species of plants were hunted and gathered for survival. Groups of the Clovis people moved from place to place as their resources were depleted and new supplies were needed.  This accounts for how and why it spread across North America.

Folsom Culture

Folsom lithic technology is again defined by the discovered spear points at the archaeological site for which it was named, Folsom, NM, in 1926.

Folsom NM   Folsom Site

          Folsom New Mexico and Archaeological Site

The spear points were made from stones such as chert, obsidian, flint and other brittle stones (as was the Clovis Culture spear points).  This culture predominated mostly in what is now called the Great Plains, whereas the Clovis Culture was much more wide spread.

Clovis Vs Folsom Locations

Geographic locations for Clovis and Folsom Cultures

The spear heads were generally three to four inches in length with lance-shaped tip and very sharp edges created by “flutes” which extended from the base to the tip. They would be typically a third of an inch thick and often considered beautiful works of stone.  The spear heads had long groves on each side which were possibly for connecting the spear shaft or for improving on the potential velocity at which the spear could be thrown.  The smaller size (compared to Clovis) indicates that they hunted smaller prey.

Folsom Spear Point

Folsom Culture Spear Point

Folsom technology developed from the Clovis Culture and adapted to the hunting of the ancient bison in lieu of the mega fauna such as the mammoth, which were dying off.  Evidence shows that for hunting bison they used small cooperative groups that would share in the yield from the hunt; a small semblance of a societal lifestyle.

They used new methods of hunting such as stampeding herds over cliffs or into swamps for an easier kill.

Paleo Buffalo Stampeding

The Paleo- Bison and Stampeding Technique used by Folsom Culture

They developed and used the “atlatl” which is first found within the Folsom Culture. This significantly improved their hunting skills.

 The “atlatl” (at-lat-el) is a tool designed to provide more leverage to achieve greater velocity in spear throwing. It consists of a shaft with a cup at the end that supports the end of the spear. It is held in one hand with holding onto the spear and thrown by the action of the upper arm and wrist. 

Atlatl  Using Atlatl

Demonstration on Use of Atlatl

For hunting bison the Folsom had to follow the herds as they traveled through what is now the Great Plains of North America. With this nomadic lifestyle they most likely lived together in small mobile groups, traveling the land during the hunting seasons. Evidence shows that these travels could have been more than 500 miles from their originating point.

The remains of an ancient dwelling dated to around 10,000 years ago were discovered in 2000 at Tenderfoot Mountain located near Gunnison, CO.  The site has been attributed to the Folsom Culture and its construction demonstrates the way that these nomadic people lived and traveled.  The structure was in a “tipi” fashion which used aspen trees for structural poles and plant material to fill the sides and gaps. Large rocks were used to for flooring, pole support, and lower walls.

Tenderfoot Mountain Site  Folsom Ancient Dwelling

Tenderfoot Mountain Near Gunnison CO & Conceptual Image of Ancient Dwelling

Eight structures buried just beneath the surface of Tenderfoot Mountain’s summit were uncovered and in one section of the site, researchers found a large number of stone tools and Folsom projectile points. Bone fragments inside the structure are radiocarbon dated to around 10,400 years ago, placing it within the Folsom range.

Sandia Culture

Sandia Cave is an archaeological site in the northern Sandia Mountains near Bernalillo, New Mexico.  Frank Hibben of the University of New Mexico conducted excavations at the cave site starting in 1937 and concluded that Sandia spear points predated both Clovis and Folsom artifacts. Debate ensued over his conclusion and the popular belief today is that the Sandia Cave findings were most likely around the same period as the Folsom Culture meaning that the Sandia Culture existed around 9000 to 11,000 years ago. Again, during this paleo-lithic time period, the only way to measure distinction from the Folsom Culture was in the lithic technology regarding the tooling of the spear points.

Location of Sandia Cave  Sandia Cave

Sandia Cave Location and Site

The Sandia spear points were thin and two to four inches long with fluting down one side from tip to base and on the other side from tip to a notch on the side of the base. The notch, most likely, was for attaching spear shaft.

Sandia Spear Point

Sandia Culture Spear Point

Plano Culture (Agate Basin Culture)

The Plano Culture followed the Clovis and Folsom Cultures and is dated as existing between 6500 to 10,000 years ago.  Numerous archaeological sites have been discovered in the Central Plains which provide artifacts for this culture.  The culture originated in the plains, but extended far beyond, from the Atlantic coast to British Columbia.  The Plano natives that thieved in the Northwest are identified as part of the Agate Basin Culture.  The similarity between the Agate Basin and Plano Cultures in the Southern and Midwestern Plains are such that scholar sometimes use the either name for the one culture.

Folsom and Plano Cultures

Location Comparison for Plano and Folsom Cultures

The Plano natives that thieved in the Northwest are identified as part of the Agate Basin Culture.  The similarity between the Agate Basin and Plano Cultures in the Southern and Midwestern Plains are such that scholar sometimes use the either name for the one culture.

Location of Agate Basin

Agate Culture Named for Archaeological Site in Easter Wyoming

Plano is derived from the Latin word “planus” which means flat.  In geographical terms the word referrers to the “Plains” or more definitively the “Great Plains” of North America. This is the location of the major archaeological sites that provide information on the Plano Culture.  Some of the specific Sites, showing the geographical spread, include:

  • Agate Basin Complex, as mentions above, is the site near Lusk, WY where significant discoveries supporting the Plano / Agate Basin culture were uncovered. This site was uncovered as far back as 1916 with the more detailed work being done in the earlier 1940’s. Artifacts included tools, projectile points, and remnants of paleo campsites provided significant information on these cultures.
  • Plainview Site located near Plainview Texas was one of the earliest archaeological sites, 1947, where artifacts for the Plano Culture were discovered. Projectile points and butchered bison bone remnants were among the artifacts.
  • Foothills / Mountain Complex consists of multiple sites located in an area along the Rocky Mountain foot hills northwest of Denver running north to the Wyoming Border. Late Folsom and early Plano artifacts were discovered in these sites in the 1930s by the Smithsonian Institute.

The culture is distinguished by the hunting methods used which involved large scale stampeding of bison herds as did the later Folsom Culture but it included construction of corrals when cliffs or swamps were not available for collecting the animals. They also developed a method of preserving their food by packing it with animal fat and berries in bison hide and storing it in semi-subterranean structures or pit houses.

Pit House

Image of a Re-construction of a Plano Culture Pit House


Image of Corralling Used by Plano Culture


Small animal, berry, fish and bird remains from later Plano sites indicate that a wide variety of resources were collected for food and other uses, such as medicine, tools, and clothing. In addition to bison for their meat diet, due to the advancement of time and changes in the environment, they included smaller and more readily available animals such as elk, deer, raccoon and coyote.

For many anthropologists the Plano culture was Proto-Archaic, a bridge between the Paleo-Lithic Cultures and the Archaic Cultures of the Paleo-Americans. A dramatic change in projectile points and overall weapon systems takes place during the Plano Culture. The new weapon systems which included the advancement in the design and use of spear throwers (atlatls) were rapidly adopted across the Central Plains.

Advanced Hunting Style Using Atlatl

Widespread Use of Atlatl by Plano Culture

Plano points do not include the hollowing or ‘fluting’ found in Clovis and Folsom points.  From the numerous archaeological sites, two generalized types of the Plano projectile points have been defined as the stemmed and Lancelot points.   Specific variations of these types are numerous and are based on geographical locations which in turn defined the required design of the projectile point for the specific animals being hunted.

                          Plano Stemmed Point                              Plano Lancolot Point

                              Stemmed Point                                  Lancelot Point

Initially the Plano people were nomadic as were the Clovis and Folsom however there became a more residential or settlement living style displayed by the culture as time progressed.  Less traveling by entire social or family groups and hunting parties used from a community pueblo (village) are evidenced.  Stabilizing of communities is a cultural change that leads to the Archaic Cultures.

Societal Life Syle

Image of Plano Culture Life Style

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