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March 21, 2010


Americans in Search of Their Prehistoric Past
Stuart Streuver, PhD

This book is long out of print, but if you're interested in North American Archaeology it is one of the most interesting books.

Koster is an ancient site in the lower Illinois River valley which was thoroughly excavated in the 1970s. It is the oldest and most complex excavation site in the entire U.S.; a site uniquely attractive to Amerinds over millennia. The dig ultimately involved sixteen identifiable levels. The lowest was 32 feet below present ground level (because of downwash over time), and has been dated at >7,500 B.C.; the most important site for research and development of what is now called "new archaeology."

Instead of treasure hunting, for which historic archaeology is noted, a variety of new modalities of study were invented, which permitted the acquisition of information which uncovered the life style of the various generations of ancients who had lived there thru the ages.

That is why the book is fascinating. With the techniques discovered, they found that when fish grow they add rings (like trees) to their scales, rather than adding more scales. The rings are laid down in a sufficiently unique fashion that it was possible to determine the age of the fish, and whether they were caught in the spring or fall. The natives ate only "keepers." Mussel shells gave them more useful information. The excavation collected huge quantities of pollen and charred nut shells--amazingly durable--from which they could not only determine what grew in the area over the millennia, but what the natives chose to gather as food.

"To our surprise, the Early Archaic people had learned how to exploit the wild-food resources in their environment so skillfully that they could go out and replenish their staples on a seasonal basis year in and year out with almost as much confidence as we drive to the super market for ours." Pollen from a large variety of medicinal plants was also found on site. The plethora of food was such that these folks rarely moved beyond a three-mile radius of their villages to find all they could want. Populations remained stable--and healthy--suggesting that there was sufficient space between settlements that the growing population voluntarily moved away to found other, similar sites removed enough to allow for their prosperity. There was no great flowering of culture. Abundance was such that it delayed the development of agriculture for thousands of years. The Amerinds lived in the area for over 12,000 years, but only in the last 1,000 years did they develop serious agriculture. Such was the bounty in their environment.

Bones could be studied, indicating which animals were hunted; other artifacts gave clues to how and with what they were hunted and butchered. The bones also indicated that they brought only the meaty portions of the game back from the hunt. Fragments of charred, woven clothing materials were found, which confirmed textile manufacture long before it had previously been recognized.

Astonishingly, it was discovered that they lived in substantial, permanent housing constructed of wattle and daub--with perimeter drainage ditches!--in 5,000 B.C., six thousand years before previously thought. They had substantial fire pits and large grinding stones hollowed out like modern pestles, further confirming their settled lifestyle.

Artifacts were found which confirmed trade with northern Michigan, over 500 miles away--before 6,000 B.C. Burials indicated that the early "primitives" weren't primitive at all. They didn't struggle to survive. Many lived into their 70's, most had perfect teeth and some were obviously severely crippled. These people lived a life of leisure and plenty, and were able to care for their compromised elders. Interestingly, it was determined that the dog was domesticated several thousand years before the widely accepted date.

The gospel of anthropology had been that settled communities permitted the development and arts, but it was clear that that was not true. These people spent their time in "the pursuit of happiness," rather than indulging in such activities. Competition seems to have favored the arts.

There was no habitation on site after about 1,000 A.D. since the site would have been indefensible against attacks from the warring cultures of that era, but the study of genetic traits established biological continuity in the region from ancient times. They evolved into the mound people of Cahokia (600-1400 A.D.), the most famous mound builders, and the most populous and successful North American culture. Monks Mound, alone, covers 14 acres, rises 100 feet, and was topped by a massive 5,000 square-foot building another 50 feet high. The population, at its peak, is estimated at 40,000, surrounded by more people living in outlying farming villages. In 1250, its population was larger than London.

Humorously he includes a report of a cadre of Japanese tourists who asked how much the young people (called "arkies") were paid for their intense excavating labor. When told that they paid for the opportunity they were flabbergasted. The man who owned the farm upon which the dig was proceeding ("Teed" Koster) observed: "No poor man's kid ever dug in that hole."

In closing the book Streuver commented: "There are no monumental ruins at Koster, no elaborate artifacts. . . . only the silent record, trampled into earth by feet, covered by soft dust, wind-blown or washed down the slope of the bluffs by rains over the centuries. In the ground are fragments of charred seeds, nutshells, pieces of animal and fish bones, mussel shells, and the tools of housewives, toolmakers, and hunters. In the small cemeteries people quietly sleep away the centuries. From these multitudinous fragments of evidence we are gaining an intimate glimpse of life as it was lived . . . over a period of more than eight thousand years . . . [giving] a new perspective on the America's first people."

Posted by Curmudgeon at March 21, 2010 11:36 AM