Twists and Turns

It wasn’t the oh-so familiar yet faded scene — a dark, dingy basement classroom in the bowels of UMass’ Bartlett Hall — that left an impression on me. No, no, no! It was the Coppertone man, a long, thin and tidy braid splitting his back between the scapulae.

The man’s name was Doug Harris, preservationist for ceremonial landscapes at the Narragansett Indian Tribal Historic Preservation Office in Wyoming, R.I.; he was in Amherst that cool, windy, spring day to introduce a movie to UMass anthropology undergrads. It was, coincidentally, the same film shown this past Saturday at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls. Titled “Great Falls: Discovery, Destruction and Preservation in a Massachusetts Town,” the documentary focuses on the infamous Turners Falls Airport dispute and chronicles the rich history and prehistory of Peskeomskut, the sacred falls and gathering place for native tribes drawn to the site each spring to savor bounteous anadromous fish runs up a hard, turbulent Connecticut River elbow.

Harris was setting the stage for the afternoon viewing by cautioning students they’d learn from archaeologists that our continent was peopled by ancient migrations over the land bridge connecting Alaska to Asia, and still others from South and Central America. “It’s true,” he stated in eloquent baritone, “but we welcomed them both.”

That statement I will never forget. And now, given what we’ve learned from recent DNA analysis of bones discovered in the grave of a 1-year-old Clovis boy buried 12,700 years ago in western Montana, it appears he knew what he was talking about. The Clovis Boy’s DNA profile eliminated the possibility of European genes, confirmed markers from Asia and South and Central America, and revealed genomes unique to Native American people unrelated to Inuit tribes of the north. What it all means to us here in the Pioneer Valley — where ongoing Paleo exploration led by archaeologist Mike Gramly is ripe, fresh and quite contagious — is at this time unclear. But the threadbare theory that Paleo man (and, of course, woman) vanished and was replaced by a newer breed of cat that appeared during the Archaic and Woodland eras, appears invalid, which makes perfect sense to a rank amateur believing in evolution as I do. To the scholars who loudly proclaimed that the Contact Period tribes encountered by the first European explorers had no genealogical link to Paleo people, I have from the start suspected a problem I first heard described by a Buckland hayseed named Hezekiah. He diagnosed this all-too-common flaw as “too much college and not enough grammar school.” What a hoot. Try that on for size. You gotta love it.

I first saw mention of Clovis Boy — called Anzick-1 — whose bones represent the lone human Paleo specimen ever discovered on this continent or the one south of us, in an Associated Press story last Thursday in The Recorder. From there, still intrigued after observing a fascinating, two-week, September Gramly dig at the base of Mt. Sugarloaf, I chased down the online “Nature” magazine article the news report had been gleaned from. I read it, called Gramly and asked him if it was possible that another human Paleo bone could be unearthed from the sandy plain below Sugarloaf. He called it unlikely “because I think these people’s burial site would have been elsewhere but nearby.” He even identified the location, which I choose not to here disclose for fear of random, amateur exploration and destruction of a potentially ground-breaking local site of worldwide importance. But I can say, knowing the terrain as I do, that his assessment makes perfect sense, and that the site itself has always glittered with mystery.

Howard Clark, the Nolumbeka Project anthropologist/historian who’s often maligned in the press as an Indian “activist,” was trained at San Francisco State University, where the peopling of North America was viewed through a 50,000-year or more window. So he was encouraged but not surprised by this recent finding that places people on this continent long before the Clovis Culture, which shows up as fluted points in an archaeological record across North America dating back 13,000 years.

“To be honest, given what I had learned on the West Coast, I was surprised to arrive here and discover that archaeologists believed it all started with the Clovis Culture,” he said. “That’s not what we were taught out west. Now, according to the Nature article, it’s clear to me that there were people in North and South America long before 13,000 years ago,” and even suggestive of a race that can truly be called Native American.

Where does he get his information? Look no further than the recent “Nature” piece titled “The Genome of a Late Pleistocene human from a Clovis burial site in western Montana,” which states: “Our data are compatible with the hypothesis that Anzick-1 belonged to a population directly ancestral to many contemporary Native Americans. Finally, we find evidence of a deep divergence in Native American populations that predates the Anzick-1 individual.”

News of this finding has gone viral. If you don’t believe it, check it out on the Internet. And you can take it to the bank that many respected researchers are now scrambling to make sense of it all and find a way to save face while retracting prior statements made with haughty self-assurance. It goes with the territory. I suppose that’s why the wisest sources always speak with a speck of uncertainty and a glint of humility.

The alternative can get embarrassing.

On a related matter teased to last week here, only a miniscule percentage of local stone was found among 25 pounds of chipped debitage collected from a biface-production yard at the 12,350-year-old Sugarloaf Site excavated by Gramly. The vast majority (96 percent) of the stone chips recovered were Normanskill chert from the Hudson Valley, while nearly all of the remaining four percent was felsite (some from Mt. Jasper in Berlin, N.H.). But Gramly says the sample size was far too small to make any assumptions just yet.

“You have to remember that I now believe the Sugarloaf Site could be the largest fluted-point habitation site in North America,” he said. “We have only sampled a small portion it. These Paleo caribou hunters loved their Normanskill chert, preferred it and were willing to travel for it, but this latest finding does show these people were also bringing in local lithic sources. My guess is that they used the local stone for specific tools. So we may yet get into loci where the percentage of local stone is significantly higher than where we’ve already studied.”

David “Bud” Driver, an amateur archaeologist from South Deerfield by way of the Northampton Meadows, was the man who researched and ultimately led UMass archaeologists to an ancient quarry of Mt. Tom stone he named Rocheen Dalby Chert after his mother-in-law. The site had previously been identified as an ancient lithic source earlier during the 20th century by well-known amateur archaeologist Walter S. Rodimon (1885-1972), also of Northampton. But perhaps the man who led Rodimon to the quarry overlooking Northampton’s picturesque Oxbow from the south and west was noted Springfield historian Harry Andrew Wright, who studied early Pioneer Valley Indian deeds and place names. In this line of research, Wright came across the earliest mention of the name Mt. Tom on a 1662 deed from Joseph Parsons to Aaron Cook (my ninth great-grandfather), nine years after Northampton was purchased from Indians. He explains in his Sept. 1939 paper titled “Some Vagaries in Connecticut Valley Indian Place Names,” (The New England Quarterly) why he suspects an Indian origin for the name Mt. Tom, opining: “The mountain is composed of trap rock, the material from which the Indians frequently made their tomahawks. The Connecticut Indians called this rock tomhegnompsk (“tomahawk rock”); and tomheganomset, the south boundary of Sequasson’s territory on the west side of the Connecticut River, meant “at the tomahawk rock.” Although Wright could not prove this interesting discovery was related to the mountain’s name, he believed it more likely than folklore claiming it was named in honor of pioneer Rowland Thomas, an early and prominent Springfield resident.

Driver and UConn lithics scholar Barbara Calogero collaborated in 2007 on their “Rodimon’s Mt. Tom Quarry Site” report for the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC), then wrote an article, “Mount Tom Cherts and Assocoiated Lithics, Connecticut Valley, Massachusetts” in the spring 2009 issue of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society “Bulletin.” The definitive MHC report on file was authored in April 2006 by UMass anthropologist Michael T. Mulholland and four of his students. Driver first explored the site before the year 2000, even bringing with him an expert knapper to sample the workability of the local stone; he found it difficult to chip but marveled at the fine edge he could produce by grinding and honing, which speaks to Gramly’s earlier comment about the local stone’s potential use for specialized tools, perhaps knives or scrapers.

“I can only say it’s a good thing Bud found that source and pursued it, because had he not, we’d be puzzled by what we found at Sugarloaf,” said an appreciative Gramly, who’s totally committed to interpreting the site before disappearing to Cautantowwit’s House in the land of the setting sun.

Don’t bet against this energetic, enthusiastic man of science. This story just keeps growing and getting better. There’s no end in sight.

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top