Points of Distinction

Andrew Smeltz
January 01, 1998

Not much more than this is known about the hunter-gatherers that once dwelled in North America's temperate regions. Because most indigenous populations have been destroyed, displaced, or absorbed by dominant cultures, modern anthropologists looking to understand older cultures have had to seek out hunter-gatherers living in extreme conditions—the desert, tropics, or arctic—and even these have been influenced by more complex societies. "We don't know much about prehistoric hunter-gatherers in America," says Alisa Strauss, graduate student in anthropology at Penn State. "They're so hard to get at. So, I'm trying to get at it from a different angle."

Strauss holds up a flint spearhead; the gray dust of dozens of stone points smudges her hands. Late at night in Carpenter Building, alone until the cleaning lady comes at dawn, she says, she examines her arrowheads, hundreds of them. Boxes and boxes of arrowheads are piled in the corner: Most of the points are fashioned from rhyolite, a coarse stone with a lavender cast. With stainless-steel calipers she measures the length and depth and width of each point. She weighs them, and codes them all for color.

The points, some of them 5,000 years old, were collected from more than 80 sites in Central Pennsylvania; many of the sites were excavated prior to development, as required by Pennsylvania law. Before construction begins, archaeologists go in and salvage what they can. This process of excavation and development has provided Strauss with more data than she could have excavated working for decades on her own.

By analyzing subtle variations in point shape and size, she has discovered that Pennsylvanians of the Late Archaic Period (3,000-1,800 B.C.) were much more sedentary than had previously been thought.

The variations Strauss seeks are finer details than the characteristics used to determine standard arrowhead types, but they are still distinct under scrutiny. "If I gave you a book that named different types of arrowheads," she explains, "you could then look at an arrowhead and say, 'Aha, that's a Brewerton Corner-Notched.' But I could give you 20 different Brewerton Corner-Notches, point out these variations, and you would agree with me and say that each one is different." The differences can be dramatic . For unknown reasons, points of the same type from Huntingdon County tend to be much smaller, while points from Franklin County are longer and wider.

Within each local band, Strauss hypothesizes, individual craftsmen probably passed down their own ways of flaking or grinding a projectile point; over generations, stylistic variations called microtraditions were developed and maintained. Strauss exploits these variations.

"I can tell the people of the Late Archaic were relatively sedentary just by the fact that I found stylistic clusters," says Strauss. "They appear to have occupied the same territories for 1200 years." Strauss marked valleys on her topographical map with green ovals. The ovals indicate clusters of sites with similar micro-traditions, ancient territories. "The bands probably moved around somewhat, with base camps, hunting camps, and other specialized camps, but it's all within a stable territory." Most clusters occur within roughly a five mile radius, a half to a full day's walk—the distance a person might have walked to gather food.

One prolific site was excavated at Sheep Rock Shelter. For thousands of years, people lived at the shelter. They gathered their food from the woods and nearby streams, and lived under the great rock out-cropping. This site now lies beneath Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County. All of the excavated sites, Strauss notes, occur near some water source.

Recently, Strauss moved her study to Southwest Pennsylvania and expanded it to include artifacts from the Middle Archaic Period through the Middle Woodland Period (5,000 B.C.-700 A.D.). Again she has detected sedentary local bands similar to the ones she found in Central Pennsylvania. She is also examining shards of clay pottery that might help her determine the territories of the larger reproductive groups and learn more about the culture of these elusive people.

Alisa N. Strauss is a Ph.D. student in the department of anthropology, College of the Liberal Arts, 420 Carpenter Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-1231; ans101@psu.edu. Strauss's adviser for the work in Central PA was Joseph Michels, Ph.D., professor of anthropology, 409 Carpenter Building; 865-1543. Her thesis adviser is James Hatch, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology, 320 Carpenter Building; 863-0562. This research is funded by the Hill Fellowship in Anthropology.

Last Updated January 01, 1998