Sunday, September 20, 2009

Outreach Seeking Collectors with Paleoindian Points from Montana

It's been several months since I worked on Montana Archaeology blog, but I am making a fresh start with a clipping on PaleoIndians in Montana from today's Helena Independent Record (20 Sept 2009). Because of the lack of knowledge on Paleoindian culture in Montana, there is a new initiative led by Montana's SHPO to better feed Montana data into the national Paleoindian Database of the Americas (PIDBA), at the University of Tennessee's Department of Anthropology:

...By United States standards, Montana was one of the last states settled by Europeans. But as in much of the rest of the country, there were people here thousands of years before Columbus "discovered" America. We don't know much about them - and now the state would like to know more. The Montana Historical Society is working with Ruthann Knudson, a semi-retired archaeologist in Great Falls, in trying to locate more Paleoindian artifacts from around the state. These artifacts, primarily the sharpened tips of handheld tools, have been found sparingly around the state, but experts believe there are many more, just waiting to be dug up or to surface in an eroded stream bank. "There has been minimal systematic survey done in Montana," Knudson said. "Until we can collect Montana Paleoindian information, most of which is in the heads and collections of avocational or amateur archaeologists, we won't know what is out on the landscape and in collections."

State archaeologist Stan Wilmoth said around 100 Paleoindian artifacts and/or sites have been found around Montana - a small fraction of the 30,000 or so sites identified across the country. He hopes people with private collections will volunteer information about what they've found and where they found it, so Montana's finds can be added to a national Paleoindian Database of the Americas.

Nobody is quite sure who the first humans were in Montana, or how they got here. For centuries some have believed in the Bering Strait theory of people crossing a "land bridge" from Asia to Alaksa during the ice age, but proof has been elusive. What is known is that there were people in Montana as far back as 11,500 years ago - and we know that because there are human remains that have been carbon-dated to that time. "People have lived here for at least 13,000 years, and most people don't have a concept of that length of time," Knudson said. "It's important for all of us, no matter our genetic heritage, to understand how people have used this landscape."

Wilmoth said Paleo flint points are distinguished by their size - larger than those that came earlier - as well as fluted grooves at the point where the point was connected to its wooden handle. "They're very large, and they have exquisite marksmanship," Wilmoth said. "They used the best craftsmanship, the best materials. Most of them were used for hand-held spear points or knives."

Finding a Paleo artifact in Montana is rare - many of those found have been buried under several feet or more of dirt - but people in the Helena area have as much chance as anyone. Many of the sites found have been clustered around the Missouri River and its tributaries, and one of the state's best-known sites is in Montana City. Most are found by accident. Within the past five years, Wilmoth said, some points were discovered in the North Hills of the Helena Valley, when excavation work for a subdivision was being done. "Nobody was looking for it, nobody really knew what they had," he said. "They felt proud, but they were also worried that they would get in trouble for it. We want to be clear that we aren't interested in any of those legal issues."

While unearthing an entire campsite or burial ground would constitute an outstanding find, Wilmoth said even a single artifact from the Paleo era is worth bringing to the attention of the state. "An isolated point is never going to have the same information potential as a point in the ground at a site where we can build up the whole story," Wilmoth said. "But an isolated point can tell us about the geographic extent of particular cultural trends, some of the materials can be sourced to a location. If they're in a cached site, that tells us about social organization and the spirituality of the people involved. ...We imagine these were very small groups, 25 or 50 would be a good guess for that period," he said. "And they were probably pretty mobile."

Figuring out what people were up to 10,000 years ago is hardly an exact science, and comparing archaeology to detective work isn't inaccurate. There are still questions about Paleo sites that have been known about for decades.

"One of the things we're still working on is, 'Where did the stone come from?'" Knudson said. "And the question is, 'Did people travel for this stone, or trade for this stone?' There's never a clear answer. It's always a game." And it's a game she loves. People with information about Paleo artifacts in Montana, or questions about artifacts they've found or acquired, can contact Knudson at (406) 216-2676 or

PaleoIndian Period (14,000 - 8000 years ago) projectile points and tool kits in Montana include artifacts from the early Paleoindian cultures known as Clovis, Folsom, and Goshen complex (similar to the Plainview points in Texas), as well as the late Paleoindian (sometimes known as Plano period in some areas of the Plains, but grouped in Montana with Paleoindian) which includes stemmed and unstemmed points: Plateau Stemmed, Agate Basin, Hellgap, Alberta, Alder complex (including the Ruby Valley point), Cody (includes Cody, Eden, Scottsbluff, and some include Alberta here), and the Hardinger complex (including the Metzal point).

In this photo of a general education collection of Paleoindian points from today's article, not all the point types found in Montana are represented, and not all the point types in this collection are found in Montana. Part of the situation is that most archaeologists either become specialists in Plains archaeology or in Plateau archaeology, and Montana contains both.

The collection does show examples of some point/tool types found in Montana: Clovis, Folsom, Goshen (compare to Plainview), Agate Basin, Alberta, Hell Gap, Cody, Eden.

To my best knowledge, Scottsbluff, Angostura, Plainview (in the strict sense), Fredricks [sic: Frederick], or Midland types have not been found in Montana.

The collection does not show examples of these Paleoindian points found in Montana: Plateau Stemmed (because the collection focuses on Plains types) or the types found at Barton Gulch, Alder/Ruby Valley or Hardinger/Metzal.

The Paleoindian Database of the Americas' page for Montana includes maps and a bibliography of published resources on Montana's Paleoindian sites. There are also downloadable data in Excel format, including the Mangus site, the Mill Iron site, and the Anzick Cache Site so far (as of Sept. 20, 2009). This paucity of information is the major reason why Wilmoth and Knudsen are involved in this outreach initiative-- to see what private collectors with Montana materials might have lying around in an old box in the barn that Grandpa picked up on the ranch generations ago.