We examine the past through the eyes of the present. Over time, our understanding changes as we gather more information — and, if we are honest, challenge our preconceptions. Still, it is hard to escape our personal and cultural biases. How can we ever truly understand people whose lives were so different from our own?
Lately, I have been pondering the Paleoindian people. Up until now, I am guessing you have not. With October being Ohio Archeology Month, a small team of park staff began updating our online content about American Indians in Cuyahoga Valley. We knew we had work to do to bring in new research from scholars and Native perspectives. We started at the very far end of the timeline: 13,000 to 10,000 years ago.
When it comes to humanity, the Paleoindians — not Christopher Columbus — are the ones who discovered North America. They came to the new continent from Asia at the end of the last Ice Age. From studying their earliest flint tools, archeologists believe that the first people to arrive in northeast Ohio traveled here from southern Indiana. Later tools were made from local materials, preferably flint from what are now Coshocton and Licking counties.
In Cuyahoga Valley, evidence from this era is sparse: just a few spear points and waste flakes. The Paleo Crossing site in Sharon Township, excavated by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, has yielded most of what we know about this time.
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To help you imagine this period, let’s compare two illustrations. The first was created for a valley timeline exhibit in Canal Visitor Center when it opened in 1989. (The national park replaced these exhibits in 2014 when the facility became Canal Exploration Center.) The second is part of a 2003 series commissioned by Ohio History Connection. What do you notice? Who are the actors? What are they doing? What is the setting?
The first scene, by artist Ken Townsend, features what appears to be eight men violently trying to take down a mastodon using simple tools. The landscape is a patchwork of grassy wetlands and fir trees, what archeologists call a “spruce parkland.” This covered the area south of the newly formed Lake Erie. If Paleoindians lived nomadically in small groups, how many hunters might there have been? Were they only men?
The second scene, by artist Susan Walton, had the benefit of 14 more years of scholarship. It interprets a Paleo camp along the subarctic lakeshore in western Ohio. We see a multigenerational family working together to butcher caribou, their main food source — not mastodons. The group is shown talking sociably, wearing more complex clothing and using a variety of tools.
Of course, both scenes are speculative, but they help us discuss the distant past. What might have helped the Paleoindians survive in an environment without a lot of food choices?
And finally: Does how we portray past people say more about us than about them?