Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Prehistory and the North American Indian



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[New sophisticated methods of research have brought much knowledge and greater precision on the subject of human presence in the Americas; carbon dating, DNA analysis, its uses and its application to the prehistoric past, research on the Bering land bridge (alternatively at the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve) have provided answers but also raised many more questions. While some of the comments presented in the article below still have scientific value, it is presented here merely as an historiographical essay, i. e. to inform the reader on the extent of the knowledge about the prehistoric past of North America . For a short summary of the current view of the issues discussed in the article below, consult this site.]



Antiquity. The antiquity of man on the American continent is a subject of interest to the student of the aborigines as well as to the historian of the human race, and the various problems that arise with respect to it in the region N. of Mexico are receiving much scientific attention. As the tribes were without a system of writing available to scholars, knowledge of events that transpired before the Columbian discovery is limited to the rather indefinite testimony furnished by tradition, by the more definite but as yet fragmentary evidences of archaeology, and by the internal evidence of general ethnological phenomena. The fact that the American Indians have acquired such marked physical characteristics as to be regarded as a separate race of very considerable homogeneity from Alaska to Patagonia, is regarded as indicating a long and complete separation from their parental peoples. Similarly, the existence in America of numerous culture groups, measurably distinct from one another in language, social customs, religion, technology, and esthetics, is thought to indicate a long and more or less exclusive occupancy of independent areas. But as a criterion of age the testimony thus furnished lacks definiteness, since to one mind it may signify a short time, while to another it may suggest a very long period. Native historical records of even the most advanced tribes are hardly more to be relied on than tradition, and they prove of little service in determining the duration of occupancy of the continent by the race, or even in tracing the more recent course of events connected with the historic peoples. No one can speak with assurance, on the authority of either tradition or history, of events dating farther back than a few hundred years. ArchaeoIogy, however, can furnish definite data with respect to antiquity; and, aided by geology and biology, this science is furnishing results of great value, although some of the greater problems encountered remain still unsolved, and must so remain indefinitely. During the first centuries of European occupancy of the continent, belief in the derivation of the native tribes from some Old World people in comparatively recent times was very general, and indeed the fallacy has not yet been entirely extinguished. This view was based on the apparently solid foundation of the Mosaic record and the chronology as determined by Usher, and many works have been written in the attempt to determine the particular people from which the American tribes sprang. The results of researches into the prehistoric archaeology of the eastern continent during the last century, however, have cleared away the Usherian interpretation of events and established the fact of the great antiquity of man in the world. Later, investigations in America were taken up, and the conclusion was reached that the course of primitive history had been about the same on both continents. Observations that seemed to substantiate this conclusion were soon forthcoming and were readily accepted; but a more critical examination of the testimony shows its shortcomings and tends to hold final determinations in abeyance. It is clear that traces of early man are not so plentiful in America as in Europe , and investigations have proceeded with painful slowness and much halting along the various lines of research. Attempts have been made to establish a chronology of events in various ways, but without definite result. The magnitude of the work accomplished in the building of mounds and other earthworks has been emphasised, the time requisite for the growth and decay upon these works of a succession of forests has been computed. The vast accumulations of midden deposits and the fact that the strata composing them seem to indicate a succession of occupancies by tribes of gradually advancing culture, beginning in savagery and ending in well-advanced barbarism, have impressed themselves on chronologists . Striking physiographic mutations, such as changes of level and the consequent retreat or advance of the sea and changes in river courses since man began to dwell along their shores, have been carefully considered. Modifications of particular species of mollusks between the time of their first use on the shell-heap sites and the present time, and the development in one or more cases of new varieties, suggest very considerable antiquity. But the highest estimate of elapsed time based on these evidences does not exceed a few thousand years. Dall, after carefully weighing the evidence collected by himself in Alaska , reached the conclusion that the earliest midden deposits of the Aleutian ids. are probably as much as 3,000 years old. Going beyond this limit, the geological chronology must be appealed to, and we find no criteria by means of which calculations can be made in years until we reach the close of the. Glacial epoch, which, according to those who venture to make estimates based on the erosion of river channels, was, in the states that border the St. Lawrence basin, not more than 8,000 or 10,000 years ago (Winchell). Within this period, which in middle North America may properly be designated post-Glacial, there have been reported numerous traces of man so associated with the deposits of that time as to make them measurably valuable in chronological studies; but these evidences come within the province of the geologist rather than of the archaeologist, and findings not subjected to critical examination by geologists having special training in the particular field may well be placed in the doubtful category.


Post-Glacial rivers, in cutting their channels through the various deposits to their present level, have in some cases left a succession of flood-plain terraces in which remains of man and his works are embedded. These terraces afford rather imperfect means of subdividing post-Glacial time, but under discriminating observation may be expected to furnish valuable data to the chronologist. The river terraces at Trenton, N.J., for example, formed largely of gravel accumulated at the period when the southern margin of the ice sheet was retreating northward beyond the Delaware valley, have been the subject of careful and prolonged investigation. At the points where traces of man have been reported the section of these deposits shows generally beneath the soil a few feet of superficial sands of uncertain age, passing down rather abruptly into a more or less uniform deposit of coarse gravel that reaches in places a depth of 30 feet or more. On and near the surface are found village sites and other traces of occupancy by the Indian tribes. Beneath the soil, extending throughout the sand layers, stone implements and the refuse of implement-making occur; but the testimony of these finds can have little value in chronology, since the age of the deposits inclosing them remains in doubt. From the Glacial gravels proper there has been recovered a single object to which weight as evidence of human presence during their accumulation is attached; this is a tubular bone, regarded as part of a human femur and said to show glacial striae and traces of human workmanship, found at a depth of 21 feet. On this object the claim for the Glacial antiquity of man in the Delaware valley and on the Atlantic slope practically rests (Putnam, Mercer, Wright, Abbott, Hrdlicka, Holmes). Other finds S. of the Alleghenies lacking scientific verification furnish no reliable index of time. In a post-Glacial terrace on the S. shore of lake Ontario the remains of a hearth were discovered at a depth of 22 feet by Mr. Tomlinson in digging a well, apparently indicating early aboriginal occupancy of the St. Lawrence basin (Gilbert). From the Glacial or immediately post-Glacial deposits of Ohio a number of articles of human workmanship have been reported: A grooved axe from a well 22 feet beneath the surface, near New London (Claypole); a chipped object of waster type at Newcomerstown, at a depth of 18 feet in Glacial gravels (Wright, Holmes); chipped stones in gravels, one at Madisonville at a depth of 8 feet, and another at Loveland at a depth of 30 feet (Metz, Putnam, Wright, Holmes). At Little Falls, Minn. , flood-plain deposits of sand and gravel are found to contain many artificial objects of quartz. This flood plain is believed by some to have been finally abandoned by the Mississippi well back toward the close of the Glacial period in the valley (Brower, Winchell, Upham), but that these finds warrant definite conclusions as to time is seriously questioned by Chamberlin. In a Missouri r. bench near Lansing Kans. , portions of a human skeleton were recently found at a depth of 20 feet, but geologists are not agreed as to the age of the formation . At Clayton , Mo. , in a deposit believed to belong to the loess, at a depth of 14 feet, a well-finished grooved axe was found (Peterson). In the Basin Range region between the Rocky mts. and the Sierras, two discoveries that seem to bear on the antiquity of human occupancy have been reported: In a silt deposit in Walker r. valley, Nev., believed to be of Glacial age, an obsidian implement was obtained at a depth of 25 feet (McGee); at Nampa, Idaho, a clay image is reported to have been brought up by a sand pump from a depth of 320 feet in alternating beds of clay and quicksand underlying a lava flow of late Tertiary or early Glacial age (Wright, Emmons; see Nampa Image). Questions are raised by a number of geologists respecting the value of these finds (McGee). The most extraordinary discoveries of human remains in connection with geological formations are those from the auriferous gravels of California (Whitney, Holmes). These finds are numerous and are reported from many localities and from deposits covering a wide range of time. So convincing did the evidence appear to Whitney, state geologist of California from 1860 to 1874, that he accepted without hesitation the conclusion that man had occupied the auriferous gravel region during pre-Glacial time, and other students of the subject still regard the testimony as convincing; but consideration of the extraordinary nature of the conclusions dependent on this evidence should cause even the most sanguine advocate of great human antiquity in America to hesitate . Geologists are practically agreed that the gravele from which some at least of the relics of man are said to come are of Tertiary age. These relics represent a polished-stone culture corresponding closely to that of the modern tribes of the Pacific slope. Thus, man in America must have passed through the savage and well into the barbarous stage while the hypothetical earliest representative of the human race in the Old World , Pithecanthropus erectus of Dubois, was still running wild in the forests of Java, a half-regenerate Simian. Furthermore, the acceptance of the auriferous gravel testimony makes it necessary to place the presence of man in America far back toward the beginning of the Tertiary age, a period to be reckoned not in tens but in hundreds of thousands of years. (See Smithson. Rep. for 1899). These and other equally striking considerations suggest the wisdom of formulating conclusions with the utmost caution.


Caves and rock shelters representing various periods and offering dwelling places to the tribes that have come and gone, may reasonably be expected to contain traces of the peoples of all periods of occupancy; but the deposits forming their floors, with few exceptions, have not been very fully examined, and up to the present time have furnished no very tangible evidence of the presence of men beyond the limited period of the American Indian as known to us. The University of California has conducted excavations in a cave in the N. part of the state, and the discovery of bones that appear to have been shaped by human hands, associated with fossil fauna that probably represent early Glacial times, has been reported (Sinclair); but the result is not decisive. The apparent absence or dearth of ancient human remains in the caves of the country furnishes one of the strongest reasons for critically examining all testimony bearing on antiquity about which reasonable doubt can be raised. It is incredible that primitive man should have inhabited a country of caverns for ages without resorting at some period to their hospitable shelter; but research in this field is hardly begun, and evidence of a more conclusive nature may yet be forthcoming.


In view of the extent of the researches carried on in various fields with the object of adducing evidence on which to base a scheme of human chronology in America, decisive results are surprisingly meager, and the finds so far made, reputed to represent a vast period of time stretching forward from the middle Tertiary to the present, are characterised by so many defects of observation and record and so many apparent incongruities, biological, geological, and cultural, that the task of the chronologist is still largely before him.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 26-28.




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College