Looking at Prehistory:
Indiana's Hoosier National Forest Region, 12,000 B.C. to 1650

Looking at Prehistory:
Paleoindian Period: ?12,000 to 8,000 B.C.

Paleoindian peoples are represented by several cultures. Scattered sites and tools from many of these have been found in southern Indiana, but most Paleoindian sites are quite small with few tools and other remains to inform on their lifeways.

Clovis culture is the best known of the Paleoindian period and was a successful hunting tradition that emerged from the first peoples to enter the New World from Siberia. The first peoples probably entered North America along the Pacific Coast and through the interior of Alaska thousands of years earlier perhaps when massive glaciers of packed snow were beginning to cover the land causing ocean levels to drop three hundred feet lower than they are today. The Clovis culture developed probably several thousand years after people were already actively exploring the New World. Clovis people apparently lived in small groups and moved their camps frequently in search of game and plant foods.

Clovis hunting camps and tool manufacturing sites are distributed from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Alaska to Florida across all types of landscapes. The basic Clovis tool kit includes the distinctive Clovis type projectile point, along with large bifacially flaked tools and unifacial blades for butchering game, and side scrapers and end scrapers for cleaning and preparing hides for clothing and shelter (Figures 17-18). They also used bone, antler and ivory for tools made from the animals they killed, but these are not often preserved except in wet sites, such as springs in Florida and Arizona and frozen sites in the Arctic in environments where bacteria and other organisms cannot destroy the evidence. So far, no perishable Clovis artifacts have been found in Indiana, but many Clovis projectile points and other stone tools have been collected, indicating this part of North America was just as important as other areas for Clovis survival and settlement.

Figure 17: Clovis and later Paleoindian period Quad and Beaver Lake projectile points from sites in southern Indiana. The Clovis point shown in the lower right was recently recorded and donated to the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology.

Figure 18: Tools used during the Paleoindian period. These include an end scraper, side scraper, unifacial butchering knife, and "rat-tail" tool (above) perhaps for hafting into a handle for use as a scraper.

The environment in Indiana at the close of the Ice Age was much colder than today. Studies of pollen preserved in mud and peat in the bottom of ancient ponds and lakes show that spruce and pine forests covered much of the land with intervening open steppe-like grasslands. This environment was home to the mastodon, mammoth, musk ox, ground sloth, caribou, dire wolf, peccary, saber-tooth cat and a variety of smaller game animals (Figures 19-20). By about 8,000 B.C., the glaciers that once covered the Midwest had melted back into Canada and basically all of the larger animals were extinct by the time the environment finally changed to the hardwood forest of today. Animals such as the caribou and musk ox still survive in the far north today.

Figure 19: Ice Age Animals including mammoth, mastodon, dire wolf, two types of peccary, and saber-toothed cat. All of these animals went extinct at the end of the Ice Age (Modified from Lange 2002: 95, 106, 161, 167).

Columbian mammoth
Mammuthus Columbi

American mastodon
Mammut americanum

Dire wolf
Canis dirus

Long-nosed peccary
Mylohyus nasutus

Flat-headed peccary
Platygonus compressus

Saber-toothed cat
Smilodon fatalis

Figure 20: Ice Age Animals including caribou, musk ox, ground sloth, and giant short-faced bear. The ground sloth and giant short-faced bear went extinct at the end of the Ice Age. Musk oxen and caribou still live in the arctic today (Modified from Lange 2002: 83, 101, 148; and Pielou 1991:145).

Rangifer tarandus

Jefferson's ground sloth
Megalonyx jeffersonii

Musk ox
Ovibos moschatus

Giant short-faced bear
Arctodus simus

The hill country of south-central Indiana encompassed by the Hoosier National Forest is a very unique part of Indiana (Figure 21). This region is known for its caves, crevices, and other natural traps where now extinct animals entered and eventually died. Their bones accumulated with sediments, leaving an important record of the natural history of the region. Some of these include the Harrodsburg Crevice and Knob Rock Cave in Monroe County and Megenity Peccary Cave in Crawford County. The remains of giant ground sloth, dire wolf, peccary, saber-tooth cat, and other extinct animals have been found in these natural traps and pit caves (Figure 22).

Figure 21: A small rockshelter overlooking the Salt Creek Valley, Monroe County, IN. Investigations determined the shelter to be a shallow and disturbed accumulation of sediments that contained evidence of sporadic use during the Archaic period. Interestingly, the site also contained small fragments of preserved bone and charcoal. Some of the bone is thought to be Pleistocene in age and could have been left in the shelter by Ice Age predators. Indiana University field school, 1978.

Figure 22 (left): An entrance to Harrodsburg Crevice now covered by soil and grass (Photo by the author). The crevice extends to an unknown depth and may connect with a large cave system. During the Late Pleistocene (Ice Age), solution cavities formed within the Salem Limestone and some with steep walls became natural traps from which unfortunate animals could not escape.

The Harrodsburg Crevice has produced the remains of fossil animals including saber-toothed cat, peccary, dire wolf, black bear, coyote, and wood rat. Wood rats probably lived within the crevice and may have scavenged and brought in some of the bones. On the other hand, peccaries were large animals and probably were trapped along with saber-toothed cat that sought them as prey. An open grassy landscape with patches of trees probably existed at the time the animals died in the crevice during the period between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago (Volz 1977).

While Clovis kill sites of mastodon and mammoth are known from widely scattered sites in the United States, none have been found so far in Indiana. Kill sites are those that have animal remains with stone tools among bones and sometimes a small campsite where tools were made and resharpened around a fire. The kill site is often at a spring or pond where perhaps the large animals died after being wounded with spears some distance away. Finds of mastodon bones are relatively common in the ponds and gravel pits around the state and we can expect some archaeological surprises in southern Indiana if such finds are reported to the archaeological community before they are disturbed or looted (Figure 23).

Figure 23 (right): Mastodon bones exposed within the sediments of Prairie Creek, Daviess County, IN. Reports of finding large animal bones by the landowner in 1974 prompted archaeologists to investigate the site. The excitement of perhaps having found a buried Clovis site led to two seasons of excavations where many detailed stratigraphic maps were made of the creek bank deposits and more scattered mastodon bones were unearthed. After careful study of the creek bank, it was concluded that thousands of years of flooding had caused Prairie Creek to cut and refill repeatedly since the Ice Age. The mastodon bones had been moved and scattered by the creek perhaps many times before coming to rest where the archaeologists found them. The few prehistoric tools that were found date to the Middle and Late Archaic periods and these were found in redeposited soils above those containing the mastodon bones. Indiana University field school, 1975.

At least some of the steep ravines and hollows of the Hoosier National Forest may have been used as natural surrounds by Clovis hunters to trap and kill game and make winter camps that would have been at least partly protected from the wind and cold of the Arctic-like conditions they endured. We know from geological and pollen studies that southern Indiana was not covered by glaciers during the last Ice Age (Wisconsin) between about 19,000 and 13,000 B.C. Even earlier glaciers by-passed the hill country of south-central Indiana providing a unique refuge where ice age plants and animals survived when the rest of Indiana was covered by thick glaciers that had advanced out of Canada and the Great Lakes area (Figure 24). Therefore, at the close of the Ice Age, south-central Indiana was environmentally ahead of the rest of Indiana as the changes away from Arctic-like conditions slowly gave way to a warmer climate. The kinds of plants and animals that we are familiar with today took the place of the Arctic species earlier here than in northern Indiana.

Figure 24: Map of Indiana showing the extent of Ice Age (Pleistocene) glaciations (From W. J Wayne "Ice and Land" in Lindsey 1966: Fig. 8).

During the very long process of glacial melting due to the change in climate, the major river valleys such as the Ohio, White and Wabash were formed by carrying large amounts of cold glacial meltwater. The glaciers deposited tremendous amounts of sand, gravel, and soil within the river valleys and across the land. The glaciers also formed the landscape over much of Indiana including the many hills and moraines (e.g. wide, parallel lines of hills marking where glaciers of ice advanced and then melted back). Plowed fields in northern Indiana often contain thousands of rounded and flattened rocks of all sizes that were carried down from Canada by the glaciers. Glacial melting also caused tributary streams and lowlands to be flooded creating wide waterways and lakes that eventually shrank and dried as the climate warmed. However, many swamps and lakes that existed when the pioneers settled in Indiana were created during the Ice Age and some remain viable aquatic habitats up to the present time.

The Alton, or Magnet, site in Perry County is important for our understanding of Paleoindian occupations of the Hoosier National Forest. It is a large and important base camp where many Paleoindian projectile points, including Clovis points, have been found. This site represents a special location where Clovis and other groups lived, manufacturing new spear points and other tools, and probably making homes (Figure 25). From this site, the people geared-up many times for major hunts in the hill country and valleys of southern Indiana and returned again to eat, rest, make and repair clothing and shelters, and make new tools.

Figure 25 (above and right): Clovis projectile point and blade tools made from Wyandotte chert. The blade tools are pressure retouched on the margins to form edges for cutting meat and scraping hides. These and many other Paleoindian tools have been found on the surface of the Alton (Magnet) site in Perry County, IN (Courtesy of Donald Champion).

The Potts Creek Rockshelter produced a broken Clovis point (Figure 26). The projectile point was found in a small pile of artifacts left on the floor of the shelter by looters after they had severely churned the shallow deposits for prehistoric artifacts. Sadly, such looting behavior has ruined some of the better archaeological sites in the United States and, unless stopped, the last vestiges of data on America's first peoples will be lost forever (Figure 27). There are reports from local persons familiar with the Hoosier National Forest that other Paleoindian projectile points and tools have been collected from other rockshelters as well. Such circumstantial evidence suggests that rockshelters may have been used regularly in south-central Indiana beginning with Paleoindian occupations in the region as temporary homes away from larger base camps.

Figure 26: Clovis point base found in looter's spoil pile at Potts Creek Rockshelter. The specimen has an encrustation of calcium carbonate on the break which is common on ancient tools long buried in damp, chemically rich soil. The point is also damaged from the heat of a fire. Perhaps long ago while a Clovis hunter stayed at the shelter for protection from the weather to eat, relax and repair weapons, he cut the sinew binding and discarded the broken base in a campfire and then rearmed a spear with a freshly made Clovis point before leaving to resume hunting. (2 cm scale)

Figure 27: Archaeologists at Potts Creek Rockshelter discussing the looting damage and how to proceed in the investigation and assessment.

The archaeological deposits at Rockhouse Hollow Shelter in Perry County are at least eight feet deep and excavations there in 1961 by James H. Kellar, with a permit from the Forest Service, proved that the occupations began during or before the Early Archaic period (Figure 28). Rocks that had fallen from the roof of the sandstone alcove and yellow sandy soils were encountered in the deepest areas excavated at the shelter, but solid bedrock was not recorded in any of the excavation units. Thus, there remains some potential for finding a buried Paleoindian or older occupation within this and other rockshelters. While no bones of Ice Age animals or other remains were found to indicate the age of the early deposits, the results of the excavations prove that the rockshelter was open for occupation and accumulating sediments during this time. It appears when people realized the attractiveness of a particular shelter, they returned for thousands of years thereafter (Figure 29). There is also the distinct possibility that the remains of some very ancient rockshelters are now buried and no longer visible on the surface. This happens as a natural evolution of hillsides and rock exposures as soil erosion takes place along with the collapse of rock overhangs. In the early 19th century, farming and clear-cut logging operations also caused severe erosion of the top soil that added to the deposits along steep slopes (Figure 30). Ancient buried rockshelters could exist anywhere along the old ravines of the Hoosier National Forest. While they would be difficult to detect, some could hold the key to the first peopling of Indiana during the Ice Age that may be much more ancient than we presently know (Figures 31-32).

Figure 28: Record keeping during 1961 excavations within Rockhouse Hollow Shelter, Perry County, IN. The test excavations by James H. Kellar demonstrated the deposits were over eight feet deep at the rear of the overhang and the site contained evidence of human occupations spanning 10,000 years.

Figure 29: An early trip to Ash Cave, Perry County, IN. Note the sandstone rocks (break down) on the floor and slope of the shelter that have fallen from the roof in the course of natural weathering over thousands of years. The decomposition of the rock ledge is largely due to the variation in weather during the different seasons of the year. Alternating wet and dry and freeze and thaw cycles causes the rock to break off in sheets and blocks following naturally weak cracks and lenses within the rock.

Figure 30: A rockshelter investigated during the 1999 Hoosier National Forest archaeological survey. Note the overhang and slope mixed with soil and rock, fallen from the ceiling and also washed in from the sides of the overhang.

Figure 31: A hill in Perry County showing a large piece of sandstone bedrock on the slope. Untold numbers of prehistoric people may have happened by this place when an ancient rockshelter was still open for habitation. Today, all such remains are probably buried beneath weathering sandstone and soil on the hillside.

Figure 32: Prehistoric mortars for processing nuts and other foods on the floor of Peter Cave in Perry County, IN. These are often referred to as "bedrock mortars" but they are often large blocks of sandstone fallen from the roofs of caves and rockshelters that may preserve the remains of ancient campsites beneath them.

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Last Updated: 21-Nov-2008