Hunter-Gatherer Adaptations to the Terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene Environments of Northeastern North America: Effects on Site Visibility.

Paper Presented at the 34th Annual Meetings of the Northeastern Anthropological Association State University of New York at Geneseo April 7, 1994

Brian D. Jones

University of Connecticut


The subject of this paper is hunter-gatherer adaptations to the Terminal Pleistocene (11,000 - 10,000 B.P.) and Early Holocene (10,000 - 8,000 B.P.) environments of northeastern North America. I hope to show that changes in the nature of the environment over this period may have had a profound effect on hunter-gatherer social organization, the subsistence cycle, and ultimately on the archaeological record. Variation in hunter- gatherer co-residential group size is known to be strongly related to spatial and temporal changes in the subsistence base. Models of hunter-gatherer settlement systems will thus be used to show why Early Holocene co-residential groups may have been smaller for longer periods of the year than were those of the Terminal Pleistocene Early Paleoindians. The small size of many of the sites produced by Late Paleoindian and Early Archaic hunter-gatherers is proposed to have contributed to their poor rate of discovery.

The Early Holocene can justifiably be seen as the "no man's land" of archaeology in northeastern North America. The paucity of sites dating between 10,000 and 8,000 B.P. led Ritchie and Funk in 1973 to say, "Hence, man in a hunting economy and in a Late Paleo-Indian stage of culture, was an infrequent visitor to the Northeast, which reverted essentially to the empty land of the first explorers of the Clovis tradition" (1973:8). Funk also noted that Early Archaic projectile points in the many collections he had studied were extremely uncommon compared to those of the following periods (Funk and Wellman 1984: 81). These observations led many to accept the reality of a hiatus of human habitation in northeastern North America during the Early Holocene. It was proposed that the resources of the post-glacial "boreal forest" could not sustain a permanent population in the region (Ritchie 1979; Ritchie and Funk 1973; Fitting 1968; Funk and Wellman 1984).

Since the late 1970s it has been recognized that the Early Holocene vegetation and climate were not as "boreal" in nature as previous archaeologists had believed. The pine-birch-oak-shrub forests of this time were much more heterogeneous than their closest modern analogs in central Ontario, and may have offered rich habitats for deer (Dincauze and Mullholland 1979: 447; Jacobson et al. 1987: 282; Gaudreau and Webb 1987: 256-257). In the mid-1980s, George Nicholas' examination of Early Holocene glacial-basin wetlands showed that these environments may have been rich and diverse resource areas that were a likely focus of Early Holocene subsistence pursuits (1987, 1988).

Despite these interpretational reorientations, Late Paleoindian and Early Archaic sites remain more uncommon in the Northeast than sites attributable to the Terminal Pleistocene. It has been suggested that sites dating between 10,000 and 8,000 B.P. have suffered the effects of erosion, inundation, and deep alluvial burial, making them virtually invisible on most modern landscapes. Although all of these factors are significant to site visibility, they do not help to explain the relative paucity of Late Paleoindian and Early Archaic sites compared to those of the Early Paleoindian period. Alternatively, cultures of this time period may have de-emphasized the production of projectile points which we use today as diagnostic elements in prehistoric cultural classification (Robinson 1992; but see also Funk and Wellman 1984: 88). Unfortunately, the material culture of the Early Holocene remains too poorly understood to evaluate this suggestion. While all of the above may be affecting the visibility of sites dating to the Early Holocene, it is proposed here that settlement patterns promoting the formation of very small, poorly visible sites has also played a significant role. A review of hunter-gatherer social organization and settlement dynamics will aid in evaluating this proposal.

Hunter-Gatherer Social Organization and Settlement Dynamics
Hunter-gatherer co-residential group size is determined largely by the seasonal resource potential of the local catchment area, or foraging radius (Hayden 360-363; Binford 1982:7). Resource potential can be gauged by a combination of factors including resource density, dispersion, mobility, predictability, duration, and heterogeneity, among others (see e.g. Dwyer and Minnegal 1985). Foraging species will, in principle, aggregate or disperse depending upon the nature of the local resource base (Horn 1968). Aggregation is expected to occur when resources are the most concentrated, mobile, poorly predictable, ephemeral, and/or low in diversity; dispersion into smaller social units will occur when resources are dispersed, non-mobile, predictable, long-lasting, and/or diverse (Dwyer and Minnegal 1985; Wilmsen 1973; Jochim 1981: 155-157; 1976: chapter 5; Hayden 1981:360-374; Meiklejohn 1978:69; Price 1979:82-84). In the real world, individual resources generally combine these elements and thus lend themselves poorly to simple classification schemes. For example, small game animals are individually mobile within a confined zone, moderately well dispersed across a region, and available throughout much of the year, while acorns may be regionally dispersed but occur in groves, are non-mobile, highly predictable, and only seasonally available. Furthermore, resources of various types may be harvested at the same time, suggesting that foraging groups will often combine aspects of dispersion and aggregation in the formation of co-residential multi-family social units of twenty to thirty individuals in which food producers can focus on the collection of a variety of resource types (Hayden 1981:402-405).

Despite these complications, hunter-gatherer groups have been observed to fluctuate seasonally in size between (1) nuclear family-sized groups in times of resource scarcity (Binford 1980:7; Hayden 1981:361), and (2) large aggregations of multi- family units (perhaps 50 to 100 individuals) during periods of resource abundance such as caribou migration or annual fish runs (Jochim 1976:74; Driver 1990:13, Spiess 1979). In the most general of terms, it can be said that the uneven distribution of resources (both spatially and temporally, often referred to as "patchiness") encourages the uneven distribution of people (aggregation to various degrees), while the even distribution of resources promotes the dispersion of people into smaller social units (Jochim 1981: 155). Flexibility in group size as a response to seasonal and annual cange in the spatial structure of the resource base is believed characteristic of hunter-gatherer social organization (Jochim 1991; 1981:160).

There are obvious archaeological implications for seasonal fluctuations in hunter-gatherer group size. Many authors have discussed the significance of settlement-subsistence systems and site formation processes (Anderson and Hanson 1988; Binford 1979, 1980, 1982; Curran and Grimes 1989; Jochim 1976, 1981, 1991; Meiklejohn 1978; Meltzer and Smith 1986; Price 1978; Spiess 1984; Spiess and Wilson 1987, 1989; Wilmsen 1973; Wobst 1974). For example, Jochim has discussed the importance of temporal and spatial resource predictability in the formation of large, small, and reoccupied site types (1991:315-318). Similarly, Meiklejohn has explained the apparent rarity of European Mesolithic sites as the result of subsistence related diachronic changes in the settlement system that resulted in the formation of much smaller, less archaeologically visible sites from the Late Pleistocene to Early Holocene periods (1978). Although these models stem from regions well outside of northeastern North America, they have obvious relevance to the archaeology of this region.

Possible Diachronic Changes in the Settlement Patterns of the Terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene Periods of Northeastern North America.
It is likely that environmental changes associated with the beginning of the Holocene affected northeastern hunter-gatherer settlement patterns. Pollen analyses in the region have established that the Early Paleoindians lived in an environment dominated by an open spruce woodland, with occasional stands of willow, birch and poplar (Curran and Grimes 1989: Fig. 3.3; Gaudreau and Webb 1985). This boreal environment is believed to have provided optimal graze for gregarious animals such as caribou, musk-oxen, mammoth and horse. The scanty faunal evidence from northeastern Early Paleoindian sites includes primarily caribou, although arctic fox, hare and beaver have also been documented (Storck and Spiess 1994). Although northeastern Early Paleoindians can be fairly labeled "caribou hunters," the degree of their dependency on this species is unclear, and it is likely that a variety of subsistence strategies existed to best exploit this game, as well as other seasonally important food resources (Storck and Spiess 1994: 136-137; Burch 1972). The environments of recent caribou hunting peoples are too unlike those of the more mesic northeastern Terminal Pleistocene woodlands to allow more than very limited ethnographically based settlement pattern analogies (Dincauze 1993:283).

Nevertheless, it is clear that the northeastern Early Paleoindians exploited a boreal (cold-adapted) resource base. The late-glacial environment can be viewed as "patchy," that is, resources tended to cluster seasonally and spatially across the landscape (Spiess and Wilson 1989: 77-78). Not only did caribou herds likely fluctuate seasonally and annually in size and location, but small game and plant food availability were temporally and topographically in flux. Inland resources were likely richest and most stable around the scattered glacial lake basins that offered a greater diversity of edaphic and micro- environmental substrates. These conditions, and a typical northern latitude dependence on hunted game (Hayden 1981:Table 10.5) would have promoted social organization into highly mobile, multi-family social units of 20 to 30 individuals throughout much of the year. The seasonal subsistence cycle was likely interspersed with substantial aggregation events which brought numerous such multi-family groups together for short periods of time. Aggregation events can not only increase the harvesting efficiency of ephemerally rich resources, they have also been shown to be critical to the survival of hunter-gatherers living at the very low population densities characteristic of boreal environments where the exchange of information can markedly reduce risk (Anderson and Hansen 1988:266). It is possible that multi-family units divided into single family groups for brief periods when resources were relatively heterogeneous and dispersed, as they may have been during some summer months (Figure 1).

The Early Holocene environment of the Northeast offered a different suite of resources. The development of the closed- canopy pine-birch-oak-shrub forests offered a good habitat for deer and a wider variety of small game. The closed forests were more heterogeneous than the preceding open woodlands; and although glacial lake-basins likely remained important resource- rich zones, the more uniformly distributed burgeoning swamp and marshlands would also have offered refuge to numerous species of reptiles, amphibians, birds and other small game. Beaver, muskrat, dog, bear, fisher, mourning dove, white-tailed deer, fox, turtle, rattlesnake, shad, trout, salmonid, and eel have been identified in Early Holocene interior sites of northern New England (Spiess 1992: 176; Spiess 1993). Floral identifications at the Brigham and Sharrow sites in central Maine include hazelnut, acorn, and unidentified seeds and legumes (Petersen and Putnam 1992: 46) (Figure 2). The presence of these species suggests that foraging was oriented towards a more broadly dispersed, less patchy, resource base throughout much of the year (Petersen and Putnam 1992:47).

If this is the case, it is likely that the co-residential group often consisted of a very mobile, relatively small family unit, best adapted to the exploitation of low density, more evenly distributed resources. Multi-family groups may have formed during the winter months when deer tended to aggregate, and many plant and small animal resources were no longer available. With individual groups more evenly scattered across the landscape, the average distance between groups would have declined (Meiklejohn 1978:75), and the need for formalized information exchange during large aggregations would have become less critical to group survival. However, aggregation may have continued to occur for social reasons (such as mate selection and ritual activities) during anadromous fish-runs and perhaps for deer drives which would have supported large co-residential gatherings (Figure 1).

The above model has significant archaeological implications for the Northeast. If the Early Paleoindians organized themselves most often into co-residential multi-family units of twenty to thirty individuals, one would expect Early Paleoindian sites to typically consist of multiple contemporaneous artifact clusters, each representing the location of a temporary family living structure. In fact, this pattern fits well with the present archaeological data of the Northeast (see e.g. Spiess and Wilson 1987; 1989).

Although Late Paleoindian and Early Archaic groups may have spent part of the year as multi-family social units, a more uniform distribution of resources implies that they were residing as single families for a greater portion of the anual cycle. If this is so, a significant number of Early Holocene sites may consist of single, small artifact clusters representing family shelters. Although surface finds are not uncommon (e.g. Doyle et al 1985), very few sites have been excavated in the Northeast which clearly date to this period. While this may be a partial reflection of research interest, the probability of locating archaeological sites, whether through accident or design, is largely a function of site size (Krakker et al. 1983; Wobst 1983; Kintigh 1988). Because the probability of encountering a site is related to the squared value of its radius, small sites can be expected to be strongly under-represented in site surveys. For example, a multi-family site of 5 meters radius is four times as likely to be encountered than a single family site of 2.5 meters radius when test pits are placed at regular intervals greater than or equal to 10 meters.

Small groups of people will use up local resources at a slower rate than will large groups, allowing longer use of a single site. This implies that dispersion will not necessarily result in the multiplication of sites across the landscape. This is, however, only the case when the catchment area's subsistence potential remains constant. In fact, it has been shown that dispersion generally occurs when the catchment area no longer can comfortably support a multi-family group (ie. the when costs of frequent group relocation pass a certain threshold) (e.g. Hayden 1981:361). If this is the case, dispersion will result in the formation of more sites across a given landscape. But if these small sites nearly all fall through the typical 10 to 20 meter CRM reconnaissance grid, their numbers will hardly assist site detection.

Other important factors affecting site size, distribution and ultimately site visibility are related to the patterns of spatial and temporal reuse of an area (Dewar 1986; Dewar and McBride 1992; Jochim 1991). The likely reoccupation of the large Early Paleoindian sites of the Northeast (e.g. Debert, Bull Brook, Shoop, Gainey, and Nobles Pond) suggests a degree of spatial resource predictability that promoted site re-use (cf. Dincauze 1993:284). The formation of these sites is most readily explained as a function of the patterned seasonal exploitation of an important subsistence resource such as caribou (e.g. Curran and Grimes 1989). However, Spiess and Wilson (1989) believe that the Terminal Pleistocene environment was too unstable for the development of such regular land-use patterns. They explain the formation of the many smaller, single occupation multi-cluster sites that also occur during this time as the result of shifting resource locations. It is plausible that both of these explanations are correct, and describe the effects of seasonal variation on the archaeological record. Seasonal effects on site formation processes of this time period have been most explicitly dealt with by Jackson and McKillop (1991) for the Eastern Great Lakes region.

The archaeological record of the Early Holocene is too meager to determine such seasonal patterns. However, the thin veneer of Late Paleoindian and Early Archaic surface finds across the Northeast and current lack of large sites comparable to those of the Early Paleoindian period is suggestive in itself of fewer temporally and/or spatially predictable subsistence resources during this period. An exception to this may be the high numbers of bifurcate based projectile points reported from the Taunton River Basin, in southeastern Massachussetts (Taylor 1976). This point type dates to the end of the Early Holocene period.

The Late-Paleoindian site, 72-163 in Ledyard, Connecticut may be typical of many sites dating to the Early Holocene in theNortheast. Although not fully excavated, test pits show that the site is bounded within a roughly six by six meter area. Artifacts cluster tightly around the center of the site, and are comprised of a mixed array of utilized and retouched flakes, side-scrapers, endscrapers, biface preform rejects as well as a single broken lanceolate projectile point base ( Figure 3). The diversity of artifact types suggests domestic, rather than hunting camp-oriented activities.

The only other comparable, well excavated site in the region is Rimouski near the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec (Chapdelaine and Bourget 1992). Although Rimouski consists of three artifact clusters (two separated by about twenty meters, while the third lies over sixty meters to the north), Chapdelaine and Bourget are unsure whether the site represents a single or multiple occupations. Differences in tool types between the two southernmost clusters have led the authors to suggest that these may represent male and female-oriented activity areas, and it is implied that these are part of a single camp (1992:29). The Early Archaic components of the Sharrow and Brigham sites in Maine seem to represent small-scale sporadic reoccupations, although this interpretation remains tentative (Petersen and Putnam 1992).

I have shown above that hunter-gatherer settlement patterns are dynamic and responsive to temporal and spatial changes in the distribution and variety of the resource base. It is posited that the patchy resource base which typified the Terminal Pleistocene environment of the Northeast promoted co-residential organization into multi-family social units throughout most of the yearly cycle. The gradual change to a more uniform distribution of a wider variety of resources during the Early Holocene may have stimulated the formation of smaller, family- sized co-residential foraging groups for a greater portion of the annual cycle. If this is the case, Late Paleoindian and Early Archaic sites may typically consist of very small artifact concentrations, such as documented at site 72-163, which are quite difficult to detect with standard archaeological reconnaissance techniques. The low visibilty of these sites may help to explain the apparent population hiatus once proposed for this time period. Only the excavation of more northeastern Early Holocene sites can help to determine the appropriateness of this model.


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