Ice age socializing
Native American populations may have been small 12,000 years ago during the Pleistocene, but that may have given added incentive for mobile hunter-gatherers to get together when opportunities arose. Now a team of anthropologists from the United States and Canada has confirmed that the largest-known Paleoindian aggregation site is in Ipswich, Mass., shedding new light on early human social organization.
Amateur archaeologists who salvaged the Bull Brook site more than half a century ago interpreted it as a single-occupation area, but professionals rejected the hypothesis. New research led by University of Maine anthropologist Brian Robinson and three UMaine graduate students, working in cooperation with colleagues at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and the University of Montreal, has reconstructed the site plan and completed a full analysis of artifact distributions.
The researchers conclude that the 36 house-sized activity areas arranged in a ring-shaped pattern covering nearly 4.5 acres is evidence of an organized event dated to 10,400 radiocarbon years (or over 12,000 years ago when calibrated to calendar years). The circular settlement pattern has concentric rings of activity, providing a window on social contexts at a large, well-organized gathering. More than 8,000 tools found at the site reflect intensive activities related to communal hunting and processing.
In their findings, published as the cover story in the Society for American Archaeology journal American Antiquity, the researchers suggest that the settlement may have subsisted on resources from the woods and wetlands, including caribou, which may have used a now-submerged maritime island east of Bull Brook as a summer forage refuge.
Archaeologically, an important distinction is made between traditional aggregation locations reoccupied seasonally and a large single event, because the organization of each becomes blurred when a site is reused many times. Bull Brook is two to four times the size of other proposed Paleoindian gathering sites and also more highly organized, reflecting observations that larger groups are even more particular about how they relate to each other, like different sides of the family at a modern wedding. Bull Brook provides a rare opportunity to see comparable kinds of social relationships in a moment of time during the ice ages.
Originally published in UMaine Today Magazine, Summer 2010